Photo Credit: Washington Post photo by James Pace-Cornsilk
The doorbell-camera company Ring has quietly forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them potential access to homeowners' camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls the nation's "new neighbourhood watch."
The partnerships let police automatically request the video recorded by homeowners' cameras within a specific time and area, helping officers see footage from the company's millions of Internet-connected cameras installed nationwide, the company said. Officers don't receive ongoing or live-video access, and homeowners can decline the requests, which Ring sends via email, thanking them for "making your neighbourhood a safer place."
The number of police deals, which has not previously been reported, is likely to fuel broader questions about privacy, surveillance and the expanding reach of tech giants and local police. The rapid growth of the program, which began in spring 2018, surprised some civil liberties advocates, who thought that fewer than 300 agencies had signed on.
Ring is owned by Amazon, which bought the firm last year for more than $800 million (roughly Rs. 5,700 crores), financial filings show. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.
Ring officials and law-enforcement partners portray the vast camera network as an irrepressible shield for neighbourhoods, saying it can assist police investigators and protect homes from criminals, intruders and thieves.
"The mission has always been making the neighbourhood safer," said Eric Kuhn, the general manager of Neighbors, Ring's crime-focused companion app. "We've had a lot of success in terms of deterring crime and solving crimes that would otherwise not be solved as quickly."
But legal experts and privacy advocates have voiced alarm about the company's eyes-everywhere ambitions and increasingly close relationship with police, saying the program could threaten civil liberties, turn residents into informants and subject innocent people, including those who Ring users have flagged as "suspicious," to greater surveillance and potential risk.
"If the police demanded every citizen put a camera at their door and give officers access to it, we might all recoil," said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor and author of "The Rise of Big Data Policing."
By tapping into "a perceived need for more self-surveillance and by playing on consumer fears about crime and security," he added, Ring has found "a clever workaround for the development of a wholly new surveillance network, without the kind of scrutiny that would happen if it was coming from the police or government."
Launched in 2013 as a line of internet-connected "smart doorbells," Ring has grown into one of the nation's biggest household names in home security. The company, based in Santa Monica, California, sells a line of alarm systems, floodlight cameras and motion-detecting doorbell cameras starting at $99, as well as monthly "Ring Protect" subscriptions that allow homeowners to save the videos or have their systems professionally monitored around the clock.
Ring users are alerted when the doorbell chimes or the camera senses motion, and they can view their camera's live feed from afar using a mobile app. Users also have the option of sharing footage to Ring's public social network, Neighbors, which allows people to report local crimes, discuss suspicious events and share videos from their Ring cameras, cellphones and other devices.
The Neighbors feed operates like an endless stream of local suspicion, combining official police reports compiled by Neighbors' "News Team" with what Ring calls "hyperlocal" posts from nearby homeowners reporting stolen packages, mysterious noises, questionable visitors and missing cats. About a third of Neighbors posts are for "suspicious activity" or "unknown visitors," the company said. (About a quarter of posts are crime-related; a fifth are for lost pets.)
Users, which the company calls "neighbours," are anonymous on the app, but the public video does not obscure faces or voices from anyone caught on camera. Participating police officers can chat directly with users on the Neighbors feed and get alerts when a homeowner posts a message from inside their watched jurisdiction. The Neighbors app also alerts users when a new police force partners up, saying, "Your Ring Neighborhood just got a whole lot stronger."
To seek out Ring video that has not been publicly shared, officers can use a special "Neighbors Portal" map interface to designate a time range and local area, up to half a square mile wide, and get Ring to send an automated email to all users within that range, alongside a case number and message from police.
The user can click to share their Ring videos, review them before sharing, decline or, at the bottom of the email, unsubscribe from future footage-sharing requests. "If you would like to take direct action to make your neighbourhood safer, this is a great opportunity," an email supplied by Ring states.
Ring says police officers don't have access to live video feeds and aren't told which homes use Ring cameras or how homeowners respond unless the users consent. Officers could previously access a "heat map" showing the general density of where Ring devices were in use, but the company said it has removed that feature from the video request because it was deemed "no longer useful."
Ring said it would not provide user video footage in response to a subpoena, but would comply if company officials were presented with a search warrant or thought they had a legal obligation to produce the content.
"Ring does not disclose customer information in response to government demands unless we're required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order," the company said in a statement.
Ring users consent to the company giving recorded video to "law enforcement authorities, government officials and/or third parties" if the company thinks it's necessary to comply with "legal process or reasonable government request," its terms of service state. The company says it can also store footage deleted by the user to comply with legal obligations.
The high-resolution cameras can provide detailed images of not just a front doorstep but also neighbouring homes across the street and down the block. Ring users have further expanded their home monitoring by installing the motion-detecting cameras along driveways, decks and rooftops.
Some officers said they now look for Ring doorbells, notable for their glowing circular buttons, when investigating crimes or canvassing neighbourhoods, in case they need to pursue legal manoeuvres later to obtain the video.
Ring users have shared videos of package thieves, burglars and carjackers in hopes of naming and shaming the perpetrators, but they've also done so for people - possibly salespeople, petitioners or strangers in need of help - who knock on the door and leave without incident. (Other recorded visitors include lizards, deer, mantises, snakes and snooping raccoons.)
Ring users' ability to report people as suspicious has been criticised for its potential to contribute to racial profiling and heightened community distrust. Last Halloween in southern Maryland, a Ring user living near a middle school posted a video of two boys ringing their doorbell with the title: "Early trick or treat, or are they up to no good?"
The video, which has been viewed in the Neighbors app more than 5,700 times, inspired a rash of comments: Some questioned the children's motives, while others said they looked like harmless kids. "Those cuties? You're joking, right?" one commenter said.
After The Post shared this video with Ring, the company removed it, saying it no longer fits the service's community guidelines because "there is no objective reason stated that would put their behaviour in question."
Since formally launching its Neighbors police partnerships with officers in Greenfield, Wisconsin in March 2018, Ring has extended the program to 401 police departments and sheriff's offices across the country, from northwest Washington state to Key West, Florida, company data show.
Shortly after this story was published, Ring founder Jamie Siminoff released a blog post saying that count had already expanded, to 405 agencies.
The partnerships cover vast expanses of major states - with 31 agencies in California, 57 in Texas and 67 in Florida - and blanket entire regions beneath Ring's camera network, including roughly a dozen agencies each in the metropolitan areas surrounding Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Kansas City, Missouri.
Sgt. William Pickering, an officer with the Norfolk Police Department in Virginia, which is working with Ring, compared the system's expansion to the onset of DNA evidence in criminal cases - a momentous capability, unlocked by new technology, that helps police gain the upper hand.
"We have so many photojournalists out there, and they're right there when things happen, and they're able to take photos and videos all the time. As a law-enforcement agency, that is of great value to us," Pickering said.
"When a neighbour posts a suspicious individual who walked across their front lawn, that allows them at that very moment to share that in real-time with anyone who's been watching. Now we have everybody in the community being alerted to a suspicious person."
(A Ring spokeswoman later said this example would be removed from Neighbors because it does not pass the service's community guidelines, which require "an attempted criminal activity or unusual behaviour that is cause for concern.")
Ring has pushed aggressively to secure new police allies. Some police officials said they first met with Ring at a law-enforcement conference, after which the company flew representatives to police headquarters to walk officers through the technology and help them prepare for real-world deployment.
The company has urged police officials to use social media to encourage homeowners to use Neighbors, and Pickering said the Norfolk department had posted a special code to its Facebook page to encourage residents to sign on.
Ring has offered discounts to cities and community groups that spend public or taxpayer-supported funding on the cameras. The firm has also given free cameras to police departments that they can then distribute to local homeowners. The company said it began phasing out the giveaway program for new partners earlier this year.
Pickering said his agency is currently working with its city attorney to classify the roughly 40 cameras Ring gave them as a legal donation. But some officers said they were uncomfortable with the gift, because it could be construed as the police extending an official seal of approval to a private company.
"We don't want to push a particular product," said Radd Rotello, an officer with the Frisco Police Department in Texas, which has partnered with Ring. "We as the police department are not doing that. That's not our place."
Ring has for months sought to keep key details of its police-partnership program confidential, but public records from agencies across the country have revealed glimpses of the company's close work with local police. In a June email to a New Jersey police officer first reported by Motherboard, a Ring representative suggested ways officers could improve their "opt-in rate" for video requests, including greater interaction with users on the Neighbors app.
"The more users you have the more useful information you can collect," the representative wrote. Ring says it offers training and education materials to its police partners so they can accurately represent the service's work.
Ring officials have stepped up their sharing of video from monitored doorsteps to help portray the devices as theft deterrents and friendly home companions. In one recent example, a father in Massachusetts can be seen using his Ring Video Doorbell's speakers to talk with his daughter's date while he was at work, saying, "I still get to see your face, but you don't get to see mine."
The company is also pushing to market itself as a potent defence for community peace of mind, saying its cameras offer "proactive home and neighbourhood security in a way no other company has before." The company is hiring video producers and on-camera hosts to develop videos marketing the brand, with a job listing stating that applicants should deliver ideas with an "approachable yet authoritative tone."
Rotello, who runs his department's neighbourhood-watch program, said Ring's local growth has had an interesting side effect: People now believe "crime is rampant in Frisco," now that they see it all mapped and detailed in a mobile app. He has had to inform people, he said, that "the crime has always been there; you're just now starting to figure it out."
He added, however, that the technology has become a potent awareness tool for crime prevention, and he said he appreciated how the technology had inspired in residents a newfound vigilance.
"Would you rather live in an 'ignorance is bliss' type of world?" he said. "Or would you rather know what's going on?"
That hyper-awareness of murky and sometimes-distant criminal threats has been widely criticised by privacy advocates, who argue that Ring has sought to turn police officers into surveillance-system salespeople and capitalise on neighbourhood fears.
"It's a business model based in paranoia," said Evan Greer, deputy director for the digital advocacy group Fight for the Future. "They're doing what Uber did for taxis, but for surveillance cameras, by making them more user-friendly. . . . It's a privately run surveillance dragnet built outside the democratic process, but they're marketing it as just another product, just another app."
Ring's expansion has also led some to question its future plans. The company last year applied for a facial-recognition patent that could alert when a person designated as "suspicious" was caught on camera. The cameras do not currently use facial-recognition software, and a spokeswoman said the application was designed only to explore future possibilities.
Amazon, Ring's parent company, has developed facial-recognition software, called Rekognition, that is currently used by police across the country. The technology is improving all the time: Earlier this month, Amazon's Web Services arm announced it had upgraded the face-scanning system's accuracy at estimating a person's emotion and was even perceptive enough to track "a new emotion: 'Fear.'"
For now, the Ring systems' police expansion is earning early community support. Mike Diaz, a member of the city council for Chula Vista, Calif., where police have partnered with Ring, said the cameras could be an important safeguard for some local neighbourhoods where residents are tired of dealing with crime. He's not bothered, he added, by the concerns he's heard about how the company is partnering with police in hopes of selling more cameras.
"That's America, right?" Diaz said. "Who doesn't want to put bad guys away?"
© The Washington Post 2019