Rocky River PD is one of nearly 400 departments across the country to enter into a partnership with Amazon that would allow it to access video from community members who use the popular Ring video surveillance doorbells.
(TNS) — The Rocky River, Ohio, Police Department is one of nearly 400 departments across the country to enter into a partnership with Amazon that would allow it to access video from community members who use the popular Ring video surveillance doorbells.
The Amazon-owned company released an official map of its partner departments the same day The Washington Post reported that the company entered agreements in communities throughout the country. Rocky River’s partnership with the company began earlier this year with little fanfare.
Rocky River police Chief Kelly Stillman signed a memorandum of understanding with Ring Jan. 29. The agreement gives police access to a portal through Ring’s smartphone and tablet app known as Neighbors and would “encourage community engagement as we work together to make Rocky River…neighborhoods safer.”
The Neighbors app serves as sort of a digital neighborhood watch that allows anyone — whether they own a Ring video doorbell or not — to exchange information about neighborhood crime and share other Ring doorbell videos already shared in the app.
As part of the program, the department can use “critical crime and safety events that are posted” in the app to “assist in law enforcement operations and investigations.” It also gives the police department the ability to share information about crimes and investigations directly with Rocky River residents.
The agreements across the country raised some eyebrows among more traditional home-security organizations and privacy organizations who say a web of self-surveillance poses some untested privacy concerns.
The Post reported Thursday that Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Markey has requested details on the company’s agreements with police departments citing “serious privacy and civil liberty concerns” that he said could violate peoples’ rights.
“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” the senator wrote in his letter. He also raised alarms about Amazon’s development of facial recognition technology.
“We are troubled by recent reports of agreements that are said to drive product-specific promotion, without alerting consumers about these marketing relationships,” Ivan Spector, president of the Virginia-based home surveillance trade organization The Monitoring Association said in a statement. “This lack of transparency goes against our standards as an industry, diminishes public trust and takes advantage of these public servants.”
Amazon did not respond to several requests seeking comment.
Ring’s agreement with Rocky River stresses that the company will not provide any personal customer information, including video footage, to police without the consent of the property owner or through state or federal warrants. Users within the department are also only allowed to use the law enforcement portal in conjunction with police work.
Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that he and other privacy experts believe that Amazon was not upfront about the potential use by law enforcement when it began pitching its product to consumers. The company pitched Ring as a way to remotely monitor your own home and to protect deliveries.
Maass also questioned the method in which many cities quietly entered agreements with Amazon and Ring without taking the issue before city councils where the public could debate the merits and raise any potential concerns about privacy.
“In some cases we have seen it go through city council,” he said. “But since there’s no money being exchanged then it doesn’t have to. That’s why it just goes under the radar and that’s why these agreements don’t get the scrutiny they should. If police were to put cameras in the city that’d be one thing and would have to be up for public discussion.”
Rocky River police spokesman Lt. George Lichman said Stillman signed the memorandum of understanding with Ring after it was reviewed by Rocky River Law Director Andrew Bemer. Lichman added that in the months since it entered into the agreement, the department has yet to use any information from the program to aid in solving crimes.
“The police do not have access to names or addresses of users of the Neighbors app, nor do police have access to video recorded by enrolled Neighbors users,” Lichman said. "There is no data provided by Neighbors app users that has been used in any investigation (in Rocky River). The department has not requested any subpoenas for video data obtained by Ring video doorbells via the Neighbors program in any investigation.”
The police will use the Neighbors app to alert the community of criminal or suspicious activity in a specific area and request, if police would like to, to see if residents have video that would be helpful in an investigation, Lichman said.
“We would go in and ask, ‘If anyone has video footage on Center Ridge Road on this date, they can choose to reply and supply the video,'” Stillman said. “We haven’t had anything yet where we thought it would be a good idea to ask for video."
“If a resident has video that may be helpful, they may choose to contact us and provide the video,” Lichman said. “They do not have to contact us, and if they don’t, we will have no idea that the video exists. Neighbors app users can also post and share videos within the app so other app users in their neighborhood are aware of the behavior, which is the primary function of the app.”
First Amendment attorney Patrick Kabat said that since police will use the app in an official capacity to communicate with residents, that some or all of that information should become part of the public record.
“Whenever the police take official action and put that in writing, like a subpoena, that subpoena itself is a public record,” Kabat said. “It may be exempt but when there’s information sent back and forth, in most states, here too, when the government organization takes custody of that document or that record its presumptively subject to public access.”
The Ring video doorbell service creates another ‘universe’ of potential public records, he said.
“Amazon has a team that’s pushing this onto police departments,” Kabat said. “They’re using this as a sort of like a watchful eye-type program.”
©2019 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.