Door­bell-cam­era firm Ring part­ners with 400 po­lice forces for sur­veil­lance reach

The Morning Call - - OBITUARIES | STATE/REGION - By Drew Har­well The Morn­ing Call con­tributed to this re­port.

The door­bell-cam­era com­pany Ring has qui­etly forged video-shar­ing part­ner­ships with more than 400 po­lice forces across the United States, grant­ing them ac­cess to home­own­ers’ cam­era footage and a pow­er­ful role in what the com­pany calls Amer­ica’s “new neigh­bor­hood 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 are sent via emails that thank them for “mak­ing your neigh­bor­hood a safer place.”

The num­ber of po­lice deals, which has not pre­vi­ously been re­ported, will likely fuel broader ques­tions about pri­vacy, sur­veil­lance and the ex­pand­ing reach of tech gi­ants and lo­cal po­lice. The rapid growth of the pro­gram, which launched last spring, sur­prised some civil-lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates, who be­lieved fewer than 300 agen­cies had signed on.

In Penn­syl­va­nia, four po­lice de­part­ments in Mont­gomery County have signed up for the pro­gram: Hat­field, Lower Sal­ford, Lans­dale and Up­per Darby.

Ring is owned by Ama­zon, which bought the firm last year for more than $800 mil­lion, fi­nan­cial fil­ings show.

Ring of­fi­cials and law-en­force­ment part­ners por­tray the vast cam­era net­work as an ir­re­press­ible shield for Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods, say­ing it can as­sist po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors and pro­tect homes from crim­i­nals, in­trud­ers and thieves.

“The mis­sion has al­ways been mak­ing the neigh­bor­hood 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 over 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 Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany sells a line of alarm sys­tems, flood­light cam­eras and mo­tion-de­tect­ing door­bell cam­eras start­ing at $99, as well as monthly “Ring Pro­tect” sub­scrip­tions al­low­ing 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. Roughly 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 “neigh­bors,” 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 yet 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 or, at the bot­tom of the email, un­sub­scribe from fu­ture footage-shar­ing re­quests. “If you would like to take di­rect ac­tion to make your neigh­bor­hood 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 un­less the user con­sents. 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 process due to pri­vacy con­cerns.

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 felt they had a le­gal obli­ga­tion to pro­duce the con­tent.

Ring users con­sent to the com­pany giv­ing recorded video to “law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and/or third par­ties” if the com­pany be­lieves 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 neigh­bor­ing homes across the street and down the block.

Some of­fi­cers said they now look for Ring door­bells, no­table for their glow­ing cir­cu­lar but­tons, when in­ves­ti­gat­ing crimes or can­vass­ing neigh­bor­hoods, in case they need to pur­sue le­gal ma­neu­vers 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.

Ring users’ abil­ity to re­port peo­ple as sus­pi­cious has been crit­i­cized 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.

Since for­mally launching its Neigh­bors po­lice part­ner­ships with of­fi­cers in Green­field, Wis­con­sin, last March, 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.

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 lawen­force­ment agency, that is of great value to us,” Pick­er­ing said.

“When a neigh­bor 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.”

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 po­li­cepart­ner­ship 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 de­fense for com­mu­nity peace of mind, say­ing its cam­eras of­fer “proac­tive home and neigh­bor­hood 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 neigh­bor­hood-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 crit­i­cized by pri­vacy ad­vo­cates, who ar­gue that Ring has sought to turn po­lice of­fi­cers into sur­veil­lance-sys­tem sales­peo­ple and cap­i­tal­ize on neigh­bor­hood 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. 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 neigh­bor­hoods 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?”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.