The Essex Police Department recently partnered with Ring to raffle off two smart doorbells, making it one of the latest local law enforcement agencies to join forces with the Amazon-owned company.
But even as the giveaways have led to concerns among civil liberty advocates, who fear the tech giant and its police partners are creating an unrivaled private surveillance network, law enforcement agencies say the giveaways benefit the public by allowing their officers to solve more crimes.
Local police officials agree.
“The more people that are on it, the better,” said Cpt. Ron Hoague.
Hoague oversaw EPD’s giveaway earlier this month. The contest was open to Essex residents who downloaded Ring’s Neighbors app and followed EPD on Facebook.
A Ring spokesman declined to share a current tally of its collaborations. Nor would he identify what other Vermont agencies have participated, citing a company policy that prohibits the disclosure of “specific numbers” related to the app’s users, device owners or community partners.
But technology media outlet CNet reports that more than 50 other local PDs have performed such raffles within the last two years.
Ring’s doorbells and app are useful tools in the fight against crime for local agencies like EPD that patrol mainly suburban neighborhoods. Unlike densely populated city streets or strips of businesses, these areas don’t normally have cameras aimed at the streets, making it difficult to investigate crimes like car break-ins and vandalisms that usually occur under the cover of darkness, without witnesses.
And for homeowners who already had security systems in place, police agencies needed to send detectives on a door-to-door mission to see if anyone had footage of a crime. Now, with the Ring app, officers can fire off a digital flare and hope users from the area respond.
The shortcuts align well with EPD’s “work smarter, not harder” attitude adopted in the face of staffing shortages, said Hoague, who hopes the app becomes more popular around town.
“It benefits everybody,” he said.
Everybody doesn’t see it that way, however.
CNet recently detailed how privacy advocates are raising red flags over the idea of government agencies, like police departments, and private companies, like Amazon, partnering to create a data pool that could be used to analyze the movements of citizens.
And similar issues were at the forefront of a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union – titled “The Dawn of Robot Surveillance” – that argues advancements in analytic and camera technology could leave a chilling effect on everyday life, especially when deployed by governmental agencies.
“Think about what it feels like when we’re driving down the highway and we see a police cruiser driving behind us,” reads the report. “Do we want to feel that way at all times?”
Ring has done little to quell these fears. The company recently came under fire for floating the idea of facial recognition technology in its doorbells, and some participating police agencies were reportedly requiring giveaway recipients to turn over footage when asked – against Ring’s guidelines.
Ring backed down on the facial recognition idea and said it would crack down on strings-attached agreements. And Hoague stressed Essex’s officers can only obtain footage from residents willing to share.
“It’s all at the user’s discretion,” he said. (That is, unless the PD subpoenas Ring).
While users can also opt out of receiving law enforcement requests, some local residents have already chosen to share their footage voluntarily.
In one case earlier this year, a homeowner’s doorbell camera captured video of a passing car sought in connection to a hit-and-run incident. The video, still visible on the neighborhood app, has been viewed more than 1,100 times.
Police were unable to locate the suspect using the video, instead tracking them down through old-fashioned police tactics. But Hoague said the footage gave officers a visual of the vehicle they never would have had otherwise.
The app has been slow to catch on here, with only a handful of posts within the last year. But the PD’s recent push succeeded in encouraging new users: More than 100 people commented on the department’s Facebook page saying they had downloaded the app.
Incidents reported on the app vary in seriousness. One video uploaded last weekend asks for help identifying two boys ringing a doorbell before sprinting away – a prank commonly known as “ding dong ditch.” Another video from several years ago informs neighbors that solar company representatives were making rounds.
Other posts detail actual crimes. “With a baby on the way, I wish we felt safer where we purchased a home,” reads a post about recent car break-ins, written by a user who says they didn’t have footage of the incident because they don’t have a smart doorbell.
“Buying a Ring today,” the user wrote.
Local Ring owners are in good company; the ACLU report notes an industry study from 2014 found that the U.S. had more surveillance cameras per capita than any other nation – one camera per every eight people, or about 40 million cameras. That number has likely risen over the last five years thanks to companies like Ring, which have made surveillance systems more accessible to the general population.
The ACLU report says the proliferation of cameras has yet to drastically change the way we live because most people assume that videos in which they appear are unlikely to be scrutinized or monitored “unless something dramatic occurs.”
That could change as it becomes easier – and cheaper – to parse through large pools of video data, the ACLU says, noting the deployment of these analytical technologies has already begun: Amazon received widespread criticism last year by offering facial recognition to clients, including police departments, through its cloud services.
“Any small police department or corner store can now bring the substantial analytics expertise of a company like Amazon to bear on its local camera feeds,” the report says.
Hoague, the EPD captain, believes these are valid concerns. But he felt local residents should not be worried about their own police department abusing any such technology because not only is the department committed to people’s privacy – it’s also just not realistic, he said.
“All of the cameras that are out there aren’t controlled by the police,” he said. “We would have to have access to all of those cameras all of the time in order to be able to keep an eye out on people.”
And while privacy advocates questioned what happens after Ring users turn over their footage, Hoague said any request would be backed up by documentation.
“It wouldn’t be any kind of fishing expedition,” he said. He added though EPD has no official surveillance policy, footage obtained through Ring would be treated no differently than that gathered the old-fashioned way.
“We can still go out and ask any citizen for videos or photos or anything they might have,” he said. “All this does is changes the ease of access.”