Hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country have partnered with Ring, as part of ongoing efforts to better fight crime. The collaboration with the company, however, has drawn concerns from privacy advocates.
(TNS) — When their investigation into a break-in at a local Jiffy Lube stalled in early August, Beaverton, Ore., police tried something for the first time.
They opened an app and asked if anyone living in the vicinity of the oil change company had seen anything on their personal doorbell cameras on the night of the July 16 burglary.
The department had recently entered into an agreement with Ring, the Amazon-owned doorbell camera company, and decided to try it out.
The contract gives officers access to an exclusive version of Ring’s Neighbors app. They can post crime updates and connect with nearby households that own Ring devices, asking residents to share video footage.
Hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country have partnered with Ring, Vice reported in July, including Beaverton police. Others in the same metro area, like the Washington County, Ore., Sheriff’s Office, have considered the idea and decided against it. But some hearing about it for the first time, like the Lake Oswego, Ore., Police Department, said they would be open to exploring the possibility.
The Portland, Ore., Police Bureau does not have a partnership with Ring.
Beaverton police see the agreement as a way to gain more evidence to investigate and eventually prosecute crimes, said spokesman Jeremy Shaw.
“There really isn’t a downside to this for us or for our community,” Shaw said. “It’s just another way of serving our community and solving crime.”
But some civil liberties groups say the Ring agreements have little oversight and encourage the development of a surveillance state — one run by a private company.
“If they wanted to put a surveillance camera on everyone’s front door, there would have to be some kind of public debate about the civil liberties and privacy implications,” said Evan Greer, the deputy director of Boston-based nonprofit digital privacy group Fight for the Future.
“Amazon has found the perfect way to circumvent that type of democratic discussion and debate by building a privately owned surveillance dragnet and getting police to market it for them,” Greer said.
The app is part of a larger movement by technology companies to work more closely with law enforcement agencies. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, already has a partnership with Amazon’s facial recognition software, which has drawn similar concerns about privacy even as police praise its effectiveness.
“As all sorts of new technologies are evolving and developing all around us — in our home, our work, our communities — it’s going to impact all sorts of sectors within our lives, including law enforcement,” said Brian Renauer, a criminology professor at Portland State University who studies policing.
Though the Neighbors app is built by Ring, users don’t need to own a Ring device to download it — the app is free and simply requires a valid address. People can share video or photos from their doorbell cameras through public posts in the app and anyone can post alerts about crimes or suspicious activity in their neighborhood.
The agreement with Beaverton police provides another avenue to share information. Officers can post crime and safety alerts through a special portal as a verified law enforcement agency. They also can request video footage from users living within a certain geographic area and from a specific timeframe.
Police can’t see the names or exact addresses of people who own the doorbell cameras until they agree to share their videos. Users can share all of their video or just some and can decline or opt out of future requests entirely.
Ring says residents of a particular area are notified through the app when their local police enter into an agreement with the company.
Shaw described it as “a digital version of neighborhood watch” — but rather than knocking on doors and asking neighbors if they saw anything, officers can reach out via the app.
“It gives us direct access to people that we know have video,” Shaw said. “Video and pictures are worth a thousand words. As we try to solve crime in our community, if we have video attached to that, that is a huge benefit for us.”
He said no leads so far have come through the app in the Jiffy Lube burglary just off Beaverton-Hillsboro Highway, when someone stole hand tools from the business. But he touted its use for investigating all types of crimes from shootings to package thefts.
While Vice reported that some police departments had received free Ring devices in exchange for encouraging residents to sign up for the Neighbors app, the Beaverton police agreement, signed by both parties on May 7, included no such provision and specifically states that neither party will be compensated by the other.
Yet even if residents voluntarily choose to buy Ring cameras and share their video with police, they have no control over what officers do with their videos after downloading them, Greer said.
Ultimately, police can seek footage from the Ring doorbell cameras without an owner’s consent by obtaining a search warrant, he added.
Police partnerships with the app also implicitly encourage residents to get their own Ring cameras, he said, out of a feeling that it will keep them safe, giving police access to ever greater numbers of surveillance devices.
“It puts people in a paranoid mindset,” Greer said. “They can end up sending footage to the police without thinking of the consequences.”
He recommended that elected officials review the agreements and understand the ramifications of increased surveillance before allowing their police agencies to work with a private company like Ring.
Kimberly McCullough, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the app also raises racial justice concerns.
Residents of a mostly-white neighborhood, for example, might report people of color as “suspicious” because they look like they don’t belong, she said.
“If law enforcement is going to be getting information from people in the public and they have racial bias, how is law enforcement going to respond to that and how are they going to account for the fact that people have biases?” McCullough said.
In a statement, Ring spokeswoman Morgan Culbertson declined to state how many partnerships Ring has in Oregon.
She said the company has formed partnerships with law enforcement agencies so they can “work together with their local community through the Neighbors app.”
She added that Ring also works with some cities and community groups to offer discounted Ring devices “in an effort to make home security accessible to more people.”
“Ring has designed these programs in a way that upholds our user standards and keeps residents in control and believes that when communities work together, we create safer neighborhoods,” Culbertson said.
The access to video footage from doorbell cameras has already helped police solve crimes that may otherwise have been difficult to investigate, said Renauer, the Portland State professor.
In February, police arrested a Salem man for trespassing after a Ring camera captured him knocking repeatedly on a door while holding a knife and hammer.
“It does need to be balanced against the potential misuse of information and privacy concerns,” Renauer said. “We can’t sweep those under the rug. But if the neighbors are providing their permission, then I think this is a program that works.”
©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.