Misidentifying Criminal Suspects Raises Privacy Concerns

Police, the media and society writ large are having to learn how to handle a host of new privacy and legal concerns stemming from the misidentifications of criminal suspects by new technologies.

by Ceili Doyle, The Columbus Dispatch / July 9, 2019
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Randall Blackstone received an alert from his Ring Neighbors security app that someone was on the doorstep of his Northwest Side home.

A young man wearing a white baseball cap, dress shirt and black tie, took a package off of Blackstone's door steps May 29 on the 5000 block of Riverport Drive in Columbus, Ohio. The Ring doorbell camera, synced to an app on Blackstone's phone, recorded the incident. Blackstone turned over screenshots from the security footage to Columbus police.

Two days later, on June 1, police posted the images of the suspect on Facebook, asking their followers to contact them with any information.

The only problem? The young man wasn't a thief.

And the incident isn't the first controversial case of someone misidentified as a criminal in Columbus.

"The incident had all the appearances of a theft and it's normal practice for our public information officer to post images on Facebook when dealing with a theft or robbery," Columbus police spokesperson Sgt. Chantay Boxill said. "But in this case there was a mix-up."

The young man's father called police that same day, June 1, demanding his son's image and name be taken down because the package he had "stolen" was actually addressed to his wife, Boxill said.

The father lives with son and wife in a rental house with an identical address on the 5000 block of Rivervail Court, a five minute walk down the cul-de-sac from Blackstone's residence. Over the years, the two addresses have been mixed up by postal carriers and delivery people.

"They used to mess up the mail periodically," Blackstone confirmed. "But I didn't recognize the young man, so I called the police."

Once they realized the young man in question was not a thief, Columbus police took the photos down, called the family to apologize and issued a public correction and apology to their Facebook page, Boxill said.

"This has never happened before," she said.

Blackstone updated neighbors who used the Ring app about the confusion. But he does believe the police should use whatever resources are at their disposal, including Ring's technology, to help catch real thieves.

"The Neighbors app community guidelines are strictly enforced and all flagged posts are monitored by a team of trained Ring moderators," a Ring spokesperson said in an email. Ring users who have reported incorrect information about someone or an incident are encouraged to let Ring know as soon as possible because it has "a process in place to expedite those reports when submitted to our team."

The Neighors app guidelines warn users to "consider the behavior that made you suspicious and whether such suspicion is reasonable," before reporting someone.

While neither the young man nor his family are considering legal action against police or Blackstone, some incidents involving public misidentification of someone as a criminal have resulted in litigation.

In January 2016, WBNS-TV (Channel 10) broadcast a news story identifying Aaron Anderson, Aaronana Anderson and Arron Anderson as robbers who put a gun to an 8-year-old girl's head and demanded her hoverboard outside of the Fort Rapids indoor water park.

But the siblings were innocent — they were only there to deliver food to a friend.

WBNS had obtained the siblings' names and images from a media information sheet and water park's security footage provided by Columbus police. Police had listed the Andersons as "suspects," but WBNS referred to them as "robbers" in a on-air segment, according to court records.

The siblings' parents, Willie Anderson and Nanita Williams, filed a lawsuit against WBNS in Franklin County Common Pleas Court in August 2016 after the television station refused to publish a retraction.

That court dismissed the Andersons' claims, but the family appealed. On March 1, 2018, the 10th District (Franklin County, Ohio) Court of Appeals partially agreed with the Andersons. The appeals court determined WBNS bears some responsibility for claiming the siblings had stolen from a child at gunpoint, and by "putting such false claims on a website" the accusation is available to anyone who searches their names online, according to court documents.

WBNS, the Columbus CBS affiliate, appealed that decision to the Ohio Supreme Court. The state's high court heard arguments in April, but has not yet ruled.

Cases like the ones involving the Anderson siblings and the young man who was labeled a thief pose new challenges for privacy law activists: Are there any limitations on who can use your image captured by security camera, including law enforcement, private security companies like Ring, and the media?

The ACLU of Ohio has identified several local privacy concerns including warrantless drones and cellphone tracking, but there are no briefings on prohibiting the distribution of a citizen's image, according to their website.

And while Blackstone believes the privacy concerns are legitimate, he thinks the whole mistaken identity issue with the young man will eventually fade into the background.

"I have nothing but sympathy for the kid," he said. "I think this is just one of those things that heats up really quick and ultimately blows over."

©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs