Oversharing While Solving Crimes in 400 Communities

The alliance between doorbell devices and police departments raises privacy concerns.
by Cindy Swirko, The Gainesville Sun | September 17, 2019 AT 3:06 AM

(TNS) - For as little as $100 and some bandwidth on the Wi-Fi, you can get a Ring doorbell/camera/motion detector from Amazon that will let you know via your cellphone, tablet or computer if someone comes to your door or if your cat wants in.

But it can do so much more, and that is why privacy advocates see trouble looming over the use of the increasingly popular home security system.

The Gainesville Police Department is one of 400 nationwide that have partnered with Amazon to access Ring's Neighbors app on which people can share videos captured by Ring.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office has explored whether to join in but has not made a decision yet.

Systems such as Ring can be a tremendous help to law enforcement by potentially identifying a burglar who broke in or a porch pirate who snatched a delivered package. Some homes have multiple cameras inside and out.

But civil liberties experts believe the systems can add to the increasing surveillance of public spaces, promote a sense that crime is rampant when it's not, and stoke racial bias.

Ring is like a lot of other electronic technology — it has positives and negatives, and many users are not aware of the total picture, said Jon Mills, dean emeritus of the University of Florida Levin College of Law and director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility.

"It's the classic double-edged sword," said Mills, who has written books on privacy and technology. "We are kind of blithely walking into it but not understanding the downside of it."

For instance, a stranger captured on a Ring camera walking down the street is perfectly innocent, but could be perceived as suspicious. It is not a stretch to imagine residents confronting the person — leading to yet another viral video of somebody being wrongly accused and recording an ugly scene on a cellphone.

Meanwhile, hackers can potentially use Ring and the Neighbors app to do some snooping themselves. And Ring users with cameras on their home may be able to see into the privacy-fenced backyard of a neighbor.

An essay by the American Civil Liberties Union says that Ring users run "the risk of exposing elements of your home life to the government, to the company that makes your device, and to hackers."

Ring users said they feel more secure with the system. Some have only the doorbell camera and do not use the Neighbors app. Others have multiple cameras outside and have the entire system linked to Amazon's Echo voice-activated device.

Julie Weiss said her family has a few cameras outside but added they have not recorded anything worth reporting — or anything of interest. Weiss added she does not spend much time on the Neighbors app or share information on it.

"It's mostly just property surveillance for us. Our neighborhood is calm and quiet. Every now and then there will be the occasional burglary," Weiss said. "Honestly, it's been kind of boring. But it is nice to know when you are not there who is ringing the doorbell."

Some lawmakers want more information from Amazon regarding Ring.

In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, asked for explanations on 10 areas of concern that primarily focus on Ring's interactions with police, the data they collect and the safeguard of civil liberties.

GPD Inspector Jorge Campos said the agency does not have specific policies for Ring. Instead, video from Ring users is treated the same as other surveillance video — it is subject to Florida's public records law and must be retained for 60 to 90 days.

"If Ring came to us and said we got access to video through the Neighbors portal and if you decide you are not going to use it as evidence you must destroy it in 10 days, that would put us in violation of the public records law retention policy," Campos said. "We wouldn't be able to enter into any agreement that would violate state law."

Campos and sheriff's Lt. Brett Rhodenizer said Ring and similar systems are helpful to law enforcement, particularly with package thieves.

The cameras do not appear to have led to an increase in calls to the agency regarding people perceived as suspicious people.

Rhodenizer said Ring and similar systems have already proved beneficial to the Sheriff's Office.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," Rhodenizer said. "We have great success when we deal with people who own the system — 'let me get my video for you.'"

©2019 The Gainesville Sun, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.