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Ring doorbells and the police: What to do if surveillance has you worried

Ring's partnerships with local police have some privacy advocates concerned about a potential surveillance state. Here's what you can do if you have concerns of your own.

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Ring is working with law enforcement across the US to build digital neighborhood watch groups with its smart doorbells and outdoor security cameras. Do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing? Tell me in the comments below. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Ring, which sells video doorbellsoutdoor cameras and other security devices, also offers a Neighbors app that it pitches as "the new neighborhood watch." While the Neighbors app is voluntary, some people, communities and advocacy groups have expressed concerns about how Ring, which is owned by Amazon, is using data from the app as part of its partnerships with law enforcement agencies -- particularly issues related to privacy. 

The Neighbors app connects local residents to help them find lost pets, view crime alerts in the area, share details of thefts or whatever people might deem "suspicious activity."

Police departments sign up with Ring and can then look at posts on the Neighbors app. They can also ask Ring if any Neighbors users are willing to share video clips in a certain area for a specific time frame. Neighbors app users aren't required to share their footage, and their device and account info aren't shared with law enforcement. 

There are 661 partnerships between Ring and police departments across the US, all viewable on a Google map that Ring maintains and updates regularly.

Ring cameras and the Neighbors app can, and do, help solve crimes. A Ring doorbell in Edgewood, Washington, caught two women stealing packages back in June. The items were later returned by the women who took them after Ring footage was shared on social media and on TV. Police in Salt Lake City identified a suspect in a package theft in August after a Ring customer shared a video clip on the Neighbors app.  

"Anything that we can utilize in helping identify how a crime was committed, maybe who committed the crime, where the crime was committed -- those are all things that are important to our case," said Keith Horrocks, public information officer with the Salt Lake City police department, which partnered with Ring in June. "Video is imperative."

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Ring has 661 partnerships with police departments in the United States. 

Ring/Screenshot by CNET

But there's another side to Ring's digital neighborhood watch, one that raises concerns about privacy and racial profiling. Advocacy nonprofits, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Fight for the Future, say partnerships like these should be carefully examined due to privacy risks. 

"Amazon is building a privately run, for-profit surveillance state -- and they're getting local police to market it for them in exchange for VIP access to Amazon's on-demand surveillance system," FFTF wrote in a September petition, calling on mayors and other local elected officials to stop Ring's partnership with police

FFTF was founded by progressive policy advocates Tiffiniy Cheng and Holmes Wilson and has 2.4 million members. About 20,000 people have signed their petition so far. 

"Home security cameras have existed for decades, and local police have long engaged in the practice of asking residents to voluntarily provide information, including any video recordings, to help the police investigate, solve, and prevent crimes," a Ring spokesperson said in an email statement. 

Those concerns haven't shaken the rapid rise of video doorbells, which can be a convenient way to keep an eye on your yard. Smart doorbells are the fastest-growing segment of the surveillance camera industry, with spending expected to reach $1.4 billion by 2023, according to market researcher Strategy Analytics. Ring, which Amazon purchased for $839 million in February 2018, had a 68% market share in the US in 2018, according to research analytics firm IHS.

But if you are concerned, there are steps you can take to preserve the privacy of your neighborhood.

Protecting neighborhoods or a privacy risk?

Given that police departments would have to get a warrant to set up cameras on private property, advocacy groups including the ACLU and FFTF see partnerships like the one between Ring and local police as a way to get around that rule, raising privacy concerns about how the footage is stored and used by law enforcement. 

"These partnerships threaten everyone's basic rights, from someone walking their dog to a mother playing with her kids in their yard," FFTF explains in its petition. 

The Amazon company doesn't manage how law enforcement uses Ring camera footage, so police can conduct their own facial recognition searches or share footage with other law enforcement agencies once they receive it. 

Ring says the company isn't planning to use Amazon's facial recognition software, Rekognition, to build a facial recognition database linked to law enforcement in the Ring app. Ring has considered adding facial recognition tech to its cameras, filing for two patents in 2018 that would add that feature to its software, drawing the ire of critics. 

People interested in understanding how the Ring footage they share might be used by law enforcement should visit their local police department and ask them if they have a partnership with Amazon, said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. 

Police aren't legally required to let you know they have a partnership with Ring or how they might use the footage they obtain. 

"Neighbors Portal back-end features should not be shared with the public, including the law enforcement portal on desktop view, the heat map, sample video request emails or the video request process itself as they often contain sensitive investigative information," a Ring representative told the Bensenville, Illinois police department via email in July, according to Freedom of Information Act documents sent to privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur.

You can also file a public records request to find out if an agreement exists or check this map to see if there's already a Ring/police department partnership in your city. 

CCOPS laws

Crockford also says that some communities are looking at ways to stop a partnership between Ring and law enforcement. They can do so using Community Control Over Police Surveillance laws.

CCOPS laws are local ordinances passed by city councils that give communities a say in whether police can obtain and use new surveillance technologies. The ACLU developed the model for CCOPS laws and works with other nonprofit partners, including FFTF, to educate communities about the CCOPS ordinance and how they can take action to prevent partnerships like the one with Ring and law enforcement. 

"When communities start having conversations with their democratically elected leaders about the importance of civilian oversight of law enforcement surveillance and the public's interest in ensuring that we retain robust privacy rights in the 21st century," Crockford said, "It's not just lawmakers that listen, but also responsible police departments and the leadership of those responsible police departments."  

The Cambridge City Council of Cambridge, Massachusetts passed a CCOPS law back in December 2018, with help from the ACLU and other partners. CCOPS laws apply retroactively to any tech that's already being used, meaning such laws have the potential to stop a partnership from happening -- or to reverse an existing one. This map shows that at least 12 cities have passed CCOPS laws in the last three years, and 18 other cities are currently working on passing them. California and Maine are working on passing statewide CCOPS laws. 

Reach out to government officials

Even if there's a partnership between Ring and law enforcement, your local government may not be aware of it, Crockford said. Residents may request a hearing to discuss the topic in their  community. Invite the police chief to discuss how they use Ring footage and explain your concerns, including why you might not want a partnership between Ring and the police where you live. 

Crockford also suggests learning more about how your local government works to determine who's in charge and making "binding" decisions about how the police department operates. "The degree to which different pieces of the local government have oversight over the police varies by community," Crockford explains.  

Even if your city council is aware of an existing partnership between Ring and law enforcement, Evan Greer, deputy director at FFTF, says you can ask that your city council reconsider the agreement and work to reverse it. "Your city council has a responsibility to protect residents' basic rights, privacy and civil liberties. With enough pressure, local elected officials have to respond," Greer says. 

Greer recommends asking local police departments specific questions about how they collect, store and use the Ring footage, as well as reaching out to government officials at the state and federal level. 

"State legislators can pass laws that govern how Ring cameras can collect data, or even ban them entirely. Congressional lawmakers can launch investigations into Amazon's surveillance-based business model, or deny federal funding to law enforcement agencies that spend tax dollars to subsidize Amazon products," Greer adds.

You can also add your name to the Fight for the Future petition.   

Originally published Nov. 16.

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