THE AMAZON-OWNED SECURITY firm Ring wants to let police know what’s happening in your neighborhood. Law enforcement agencies that sign up are provided with a web-based map showing which homeowners have installed Ring doorbell cameras. They can request access to recorded videos—bypassing that pesky step of obtaining a search warrant first.
“We just like the fact that Ring wants to work with law enforcement and the citizens and bring us into the same forum to try to keep our community safe,” Tony Botti, public information officer for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office in California, told Government Technology. “It lessens the work we have to do; maybe we have to knock on a few less doors to get the video.”
When police use Ring’s so-called Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal to request archived footage, customers in that area receive an alert: “Sharing your Ring videos is absolutely your choice, and none of your information has been shared with law enforcement. However, if you’d like to take direct action against crime in your community, this is a great opportunity….”
Ring has been exceptionally secretive about its relationship with law enforcement, insisting on contracts that limit what government agencies may disclose. What has become public—thanks to public records requests by journalists and a handful of leaks—suggests that the company has enlisted police as de facto salespeople by providing camera “credits” in exchange for sales efforts. One confidential agreement obtained by Motherboard says that for every resident who downloads Ring’s “neighborhood watch” app, local law enforcement receives a $10 credit toward the purchase of free Ring cameras. Over 400 departments reportedly have signed up.
Ring has also tried to shape news coverage, instructing one Florida police department to delay an announcement about the partnership and contractually insisting that public statements about the program be vetted by the company.
Headlines across the country have described this arrangement as creating a massive surveillance network. In cities dotted by many Ring cameras (or competitors such as Nest, Canary, and Arlo), law enforcement can probably reconstruct a pedestrian’s movements from the time he enters a neighborhood until he exits.
Not all borderline-creepy technologies are illegal or should be: Lower courts have said that you enjoy no reasonable expectation of privacy on a public street, let alone on your neighbor’s doorstep. While the Supreme Court recognized in a 1979 case that “people are not shorn of all Fourth Amendment protection when they step from their homes onto the public sidewalks,” here the government is installing no cameras of its own. Federal law is silent on the topic. State laws typically take a permissive approach toward residential video surveillance, though some are stricter if audio is recorded as well.
The next advance in video surveillance will be tracking faces and license plates. Ring cameras today offer up to 2 megapixels resolution, also known as 1080p. That’s not great for capturing license plates and faces, especially when combined with a wide-angle lens. In my experience, higher resolution 8-megapixel cameras (also known as 4K) do a far better job. Google’s Nest Cam IQ is now available in 4K, though it requires a hardwired Ethernet connection instead of WiFi.
Count on ample market demand for this. Google already advertises that the Nest Cam IQ can, with a paid subscription, “recognize a familiar face.” And many of us might, reasonably, wish to know if a vehicle with an unfamiliar license plate parks in our driveway at 3 a.m.
Privacy activists are likely to clamor for laws regulating the sale or use of advanced video surveillance. One advocacy group already asked the Federal Trade Commission, unsuccessfully, for a “moratorium on the commercial deployment of facial recognition techniques.”
A wiser—and constitutional, if that matters anymore—approach would be to regulate police use of residential video surveillance. This could include disclosing the contours of surveillance “partnerships,” creating administrative safeguards to limit abuses, defining when a search warrant is required before requesting video, and publishing an annual transparency report. Privacy-sensitive homeowners might opt to store video recordings locally, which makes it more difficult for police to access them surreptitiously. This is not merely a theoretical concern: In 2017, a postal inspector obtained a court order instructing Google to hand over data from a Nest camera without the advance knowledge or consent of the camera’s owner. The company complied.
DECLAN MCCULLAGH, a Silicon Valley writer and entrepreneur, is co-founder of the startup Talki.ng. ■