In most cases, when police want to search your neighborhood, they need a warrant and a reason to believe something’s amiss. Now “reasonable suspicion” is going the way of dial-up. Fifty police departments across the United States are partnering with Amazon to collect footage from people who use Ring, the company’s internet-connected doorbell. Some are offering discounted or free Ring doorbells in exchange for a pledge to register the devices with law enforcement and submit all requested footage. Amazon has also filed patents to expand its Ring line beyond doorbells and into cameras mounted on motor vehicles, inside wearable “smart glasses,” even atop security drones that circle your home and call the police if they detect a disturbance.
Privacy experts are expectably wary of a digital “neighborhood watch”: citizens spying on one another, with Silicon Valley’s help. In a statement to The Atlantic, a spokesperson for Amazon Ring said the company doesn’t endorse the giveaways that require users to hand over footage, and noted that most of the 50 partners allow residents to choose whether they want to hand over footage. (Earlier this month, however, CNET quoted a New Jersey police captain admitting to sending officers to people’s doorsteps when they don’t respond to footage requests. No warrant required.)
Suspicion is currency. Selling consumers a 24/7 surveillance apparatus of their own making shrinks police oversight, expands the network of cameras blanketing American cities, and sends money to Amazon. That’s the trick of high-tech home surveillance: For users, it feels empowering. But it also creates a regulatory gray zone: When private citizens own the cameras, their footage isn’t subject to the same rules as police surveillance.
“People only think one step ahead of themselves,” says Brian Hofer, the chair of the City of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, which advises the city on surveillance and privacy. “They aren’t thinking down the line. Securing your home is defensive. [Installing] cameras pointing at your neighbors’ houses and license-plate readers tracking their vehicles is a whole different ball game.”
Different for two reasons. First, Ring is part of a surveillance ecosystem far more sophisticated than a single officer reviewing footage. According to CNET, police in Indiana matched Ring footage of nearby cars against a license-plate-reader system to track drivers. According to a BuzzFeed report, Amazon included Ring footage in Facebook ads for the product, potentially showing Facebook’s users anyone caught on the footage—without their consent, and regardless of whether they were convicted of or charged with a crime.
And second, private behavior on apps such as Nextdoor and Facebook isn’t subject to government oversight. As part of a national heel turn on invasive tech, Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle have passed laws targeted at advanced police technology, such as license-plate readers, body cameras, and facial-recognition software. But the Ring program evades even the vanguard of anti-surveillance regulation.
Just as homeowners have every right to set up cameras on their own home, they have every right to share and comment on footage online and even to privately use surveillance technology such as license-plate readers.
“People have tried to outlaw [private-party] license-plate readers, and they’ve lost every time because it’s actually a First Amendment activity,” Hofer says. “I have the right to go out and collect info and repackage it if I want, and sell it to customers if I want. On the other hand, when you see clearly in front of your face the horror stories coming out of Nextdoor, it’s clear there has to be some sort of oversight. I don’t know what that silver bullet is.”
“My personal preference is to win a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign rather than try to mandate or restrict private behavior through legislation,” Hofer continues. “We start getting into some tricky constitutional areas if we try to regulate private behavior.”
There’s a tension inherent to any fight about Ring, or products like it: How can you regulate police use of camera footage without controlling the private citizens who generate that footage? Every digital interaction, from liking a photo to sending an email to filing taxes online, comes with a privacy concern. Privacy advocates want police oversight, not a nanny state where people are chastised for and restricted from everything they may want to do with their own devices in their own home. But a fully unrestricted digital neighborhood watch may actually end up making companies more powerful.
“I’m concerned about police departments starting to imagine the public-safety infrastructure and hinging it on the whims of a company like Amazon,” says Dave Maass, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s senior investigative researcher. Maass wonders what happens when police or citizens rely on technology for social stability—and then companies, definitionally driven by profit motive, abruptly change course. Amazon has the right to change its terms and services as it likes, pushing updates and making changes. Earlier this year, Google Nest owners found out their security cameras came equipped with a microphone. The devices were inactive until Google pushed an update, allowing them to be activated.
“Are they coming in and just trying to disrupt and get quick market dominance?” Maass asks. “And then 10 years from now there’s all sorts of unforeseen [consequences] because we didn’t think through these issues when we adopted these technologies?”
One way to affect the “hearts and minds” outreach that Hofer mentioned might be thinking through those consequences. Sharing a video clip with one person means sharing it with millions. Empowering yourself through surveillance means profit share for tech companies. Agreeing to hand over video footage means sharpening police eyes, not just your own.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.