Police Plan to Use Ring Cameras Raises Privacy Concerns

Who’s watching you?

Key Takeaways

  • The Jackson, Mississippi police department is testing a program to stream residents’ Amazon Ring security cameras in a bid to fight crime. 
  • Residents will have to permit their camera feeds to be viewed. 
  • The surveillance program raises privacy concerns, experts say.
A person watching others using the Ring doorbell app on a smartphone.
 Ring

A plan by police in Jackson, Mississippi to view residents’ Amazon Ring security cameras is raising privacy concerns. 

The 45-day test will allow people to opt-in to allow their cameras to be monitored by police. Police say the program is meant to curb crime. But the move is adding to the growing privacy concerns about the widespread use of security cameras, experts say. 

"Ring's partnerships with law enforcement are accelerating the USA's path to becoming a surveillance state," Larry Pang, head of business development at IoTeX, a company that produces secure devices, said in an email interview.

"The ability for 1,000+ police departments to request bulk footage from Ring owners without a warrant is already problematic—but this new push for 24/7 access to live-stream footage of our homes and neighborhoods is a privacy disaster." 

Sharing With Permission

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city would only be able to access the devices when crimes occur in places where residents have given permission. "Ultimately, what will happen is residents and businesses will be able to sign a waiver if they want their camera to be accessed from the Real Time Crime Center," he told a local news outlet. "It would save (us) from having to buy a camera for every place across the city."

If a crime is reported, police will be able to view cameras in the area to determine escape routes and look for getaway vehicles, Lumumba said. "We’ll be able to get a location, draw a circle around it and pull up every camera within a certain radius to see if someone runs out of a building," he added. "We can follow and trace them."

More problematic than the cameras themselves is the software that could potentially be harnessed to the Ring’s surveillance capabilities, Pang said. "Facial recognition and person-identification technologies, such as ClearviewAI, are already controversially being used by public institutions across our country," he added.

"Pairing this software with an ever-growing footprint of consumer-owned cameras is the fastest possible path to a surveillance state. The 'land of the free' will soon become the 'land of the surveilled' if we do not educate people and curtail this aggressive attack on our collective privacy."

Grocery delivery person as seen through a doorbell camera.
 RichLegg / Getty Images

Amazon has reportedly considered putting facial recognition software into its Ring line of video cameras. However, the company said on its web page that "Ring does not use facial recognition technology in any of its devices or services, and will neither sell nor offer facial recognition technology to law enforcement."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, said it received a statement from Amazon saying that it was not involved in the Jackson program. "The companies, the police, and the city that were discussed in the article do not have access to Ring’s systems or the Neighbors App. Ring customers have control and ownership of their devices and videos, and can choose to allow access as they wish."

Within the Law

Police departments are within their legal rights to view Ring footage, says data privacy lawyer Ryan R. Johnson. "There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public areas, for example, a front porch or anything visible from a public road," he said in an email interview. 

But the ability to view private security cameras could allow police to monitor not just criminals but everyday activities, privacy advocates say. "By leveraging consumer devices, police forces not only reduce their expenditure on surveillance equipment but also successfully create an all-encompassing CCTV network capable of monitoring citizens 24/7 as they move around a neighborhood," Digital Privacy Expert Ray Walsh of ProPrivacy said in an email interview. 

"Ring's partnerships with law enforcement are accelerating the USA's path to becoming a surveillance state."

False alarms are also a problem when it comes to video surveillance, says David Mead, founder of smart home tech blog LinkdHOME. "People have a tendency to apply their biases to other people's entirely innocent activity, and we've already had situations through the Ring Neighbors app where residents have been prone to raising the alarm for completely innocent scenarios," he said in an email interview.

"Someone they don't like the look of simply walking down the street can evoke suspicion when viewed through the lens of a surveillance camera." 

The number of home video cameras and smart doorbells is only going to grow. Will there one day be a stigma attached to not letting police monitor your cameras?