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updated: 2/9/2020 8:57 AM

Fighting crime or invading privacy? Police deals with Ring video doorbell have advocates and critics

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  • Amazon's Ring internet-connected doorbell camera was credited by the company for this failed package theft attempt. The company did not identify the location.

    Amazon's Ring internet-connected doorbell camera was credited by the company for this failed package theft attempt. The company did not identify the location.
    Courtesy of Ring

  • As suburban police tout the crime-fighting benefits of striking deals for access to video from Amazon's Ring doorbell cameras, several critics, including a prominent civil-rights organization, are raising concerns about privacy.

    As suburban police tout the crime-fighting benefits of striking deals for access to video from Amazon's Ring doorbell cameras, several critics, including a prominent civil-rights organization, are raising concerns about privacy.
    Daily Herald file photo, 2019

  • As suburban police tout the crime-fighting benefits of striking deals for access to video from Amazon's Ring doorbell cameras, several critics, including a prominent civil-rights organization, are raising concerns about privacy.

    As suburban police tout the crime-fighting benefits of striking deals for access to video from Amazon's Ring doorbell cameras, several critics, including a prominent civil-rights organization, are raising concerns about privacy.
    Daily Herald file photo, 2018

  • This is an Amazon Ring doorbell camera. Suburban police forging deals for access to Ring video say it's a crime-fighting effort, but critics have concerns about privacy invasion and law enforcement helping a company build a surveillance network.

    This is an Amazon Ring doorbell camera. Suburban police forging deals for access to Ring video say it's a crime-fighting effort, but critics have concerns about privacy invasion and law enforcement helping a company build a surveillance network.
    Washington Post, 2019

 
 

As suburban police tout the crime-fighting benefits of striking deals for access to video from Amazon's Ring doorbell cameras, several critics, including a prominent civil-rights organization, are raising concerns about privacy and about law enforcement helping a private company build a surveillance network.

In nearly 1 years, Ring, with its associated Neighbors app, has gained relationships with at least 90 police departments in Illinois -- many clustered in the suburbs, according to a company map. Aurora was the first Illinois department to link with Ring in September 2018, and Palatine, Schaumburg, Barrington and Libertyville are among this year's newcomers.

But those deals could be troubling to residents who don't support police teaming with Amazon's subsidiary, said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Elected officials should place the Ring contracts on an agenda for debate and public approval, he said, even though no money is involved.

"When law enforcement is making these agreements, I think elected officials ought to be responsible for them," Yohnka said. "Building out this kind of system isn't simply a law enforcement decision. It's a community decision. It's the kind of community one wants to live in."

Rolling Meadows Police Chief John Nowacki, whose department was the second in Illinois to forge an agreement with Ring and the Neighbors app, countered that the deal with his town -- just like in other communities -- was a standard administrative function that didn't need city council approval.

"There's certain criteria for financial (deals) -- how much things have to be before it receives city council approval on that," Nowacki said.

As with similar devices, Amazon's Ring internet-connected doorbell camera senses motion when people come to a user's property and sends notifications via a phone, tablet or PC. Customers can see, hear and speak to visitors from anywhere, and they can pay a monthly fee for video recording, sharing and wireless device capture.

Ring's Neighbors app allows residents in a certain geographic area to receive real-time crime and safety alerts from those living around them and their town's police, if the police have deals with the service. Police can send a targeted message to any neighborhood to seek video if it's believed a crime might have been captured by a doorbell camera.

Ring stresses that users decide whether to share camera footage or information with authorities.

"Ring facilitates these requests and user consent is required in order for any footage or information to be shared with local police," a statement from Ring reads. "Local police are not able to see any information related to which Ring users received a request and whether they declined to share or opt out of future requests."

Invasion of privacy?

Despite Ring's contention that police video access and the app are part of a mission to make neighborhoods safer, several critics -- including the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts -- question the partnerships with authorities.

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future are among the critics of police agreements for access to video from Amazon's Ring doorbell camera and the associated Neighbors app.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future are among the critics of police agreements for access to video from Amazon's Ring doorbell camera and the associated Neighbors app. - Daily Herald file photo, 2019

As part of a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in September, Markey said he wanted answers on "new information" showing that Ring uses targeted language encouraging camera owners to grant video access to police. At least 400 police agencies nationwide are connected to Ring and the Neighbors app.

"Although Amazon markets Ring as America's 'new neighborhood watch,' the technology captures and stores video from millions of households and sweeps up footage of countless bystanders who may be unaware that they are being filmed," Markey wrote.

Evan Greer, deputy director for the nonprofit digital-rights group Fight for the Future, cites privacy, civil liberty and security problems associated with Ring in calling for an end to the Amazon-police relationships.

Ring, however, says security features always are being enhanced and customers are allowed to decline receiving video requests from police.

Seeing the benefits

Nowacki said cameras everywhere are focused on public areas these days. He said it didn't take Rolling Meadows long to benefit from the Ring neighborhood video footage last year when it led police to solve a residential burglary and arrest a career criminal.

This is a Twitter message from Rolling Meadows similar to one suggested by Amazon's Ring internet-connected doorbell business.
This is a Twitter message from Rolling Meadows similar to one suggested by Amazon's Ring internet-connected doorbell business.

Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman touted the ability of police to be "laser-focused on crimes that are occurring at the neighborhood level" when her agency announced its relationship with Ring and the Neighbors app. She said it gives police an ability to share information with the community and enhance relationships with residents.

While documents obtained through public records requests show money is not involved in the deals, police are encouraged to promote Ring and the Neighbors app over social media and other means. Ring offered "key talking points" and suggested social media announcements to Rolling Meadows.

"By working together, we can make #rollingmeadows safer," Ring suggested as the start to a Twitter announcement used by Rolling Meadows. "That's why RMPD is excited to join 'Neighbors' by @Ring."

Ring doesn't dictate what police say about the camera or app, according to the company, and police are not required to promote the company's products.

Rolling Meadows police posted on Facebook an offer to National Night Out visitors of a chance to win a Ring doorbell camera in August.
Rolling Meadows police posted on Facebook an offer to National Night Out visitors of a chance to win a Ring doorbell camera in August.

Nowacki said Rolling Meadows police, who offered National Night Out visitors a chance to win a Ring doorbell camera in August, are not favoring the company and endorse all safety measures and technology to make the city safer.

But Yohnka questions the appropriateness of taxpayer-funded police promoting Ring and the Neighbors app on behalf of Amazon.

"The police become essentially an arm or recruiter for the company," Yohnka said. "I thought police were supposed to protect and serve, not market and sell."