It seems innocent enough: a doorbell-like gizmo with a camera that sells for $99.
But on Tuesday, 34 advocacy groups signed a public letter asking elected officials in the 400 municipalities that have partnerships with “Ring,” a company that is owned by Amazon, to end them. They cite privacy and potentially unfair enforcement issues.
In North Miami, where many have been purchased, officials say they are happy with the city’s partnership with Ring even though the firm has been providing surveillance videos to police with owners’ consent.
Under the partnership locally, North Miami police officials have access to a map of where the phone-size cameras are located within the city.
Police can contact the owners via email to request a clip of video if they believe it may have captured a crime. The owners can deny the request, which would then require police to get a warrant if they want access.
However, privacy and civil liberties advocates said in the letter that this program could potentially encroach privacy and also may implicate the wrong people in crimes.
“Amazon has created the perfect end-run around our democratic process by entering into for-profit surveillance partnerships with local police departments. Police departments have easy access to surveillance networks without oversight or accountability,” said Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight for the Future, in the press release on Tuesday.
Because police are able to directly request videos without the need for any legal review, privacy advocates believe this circumvents the judicial system and opens the public up to intrusive police overreach.
However, in North Miami, there have been multiple success stories where police have been able to identify and arrest suspects with the help of Ring surveillance footage, said Scott Galvin, a North Miami councilman.
In August, police were able to identify and arrest 23-year-old Ruandy Sevilla when he was caught on a Ring camera stealing a car, said Galvin. Also, earlier this year, a suspect was caught firing a gun on multiple surveillance cameras, including a Ring, leading to his arrest.
Despite stories like this, experts believe that this comes at too high a price. One particular issue civil rights advocates have with the partnership is the impact it may have on people of color.
In the press release, Leonard Scott IV, the campaign manager for Criminal Justice Color of Change, said that the partnership will be used as a tool to target black and brown communities and potentially implicate the wrong people in crimes.
“Black people and communities are over-policed and live under the constant threat of police surveillance, which increases mass incarceration’s reach. Amazon is seeking to profit from mass surveillance by providing police with even more apparatuses, that we know will be used to target Black and Brown people,” he said.
The press release claims Ring has not been forthcoming with plans to incorporate facial recognition into the camera software. This is a concern, the advocates claim, due to studies that show that facial recognition disproportionately misidentifies people of color, women and transgender people.
However, NMPD spokeswoman Annmarie Cardona said it would be very unlikely for an innocent person to get caught up in a case because Ring doorbells are only used as a tool to aid in the investigation process.
“It’s an investigation, so you don’t just take one piece of the puzzle and go at it full bore,” said Cardona. “You build upon something, you don’t just take one piece of information and run wild with it, you have to investigate it.”
And, North Miami officials say they also believe the partnership is an opportunity for the neighborhood to get involved in community policing by creating a modern-day neighborhood watch. The partnership also seems to be well received, said Galvin.
“I certainly am not worried about privacy issues. My constituents must not either. I recently ran for re-election and it seemed that almost every door I knocked on had a Ring,” he said.
The number of Ring doorbells in North Miami is increasing. As part of the Ring partnership, the city is giving away doorbells to residents who may not be able to afford them, said Galvin.
But privacy advocates fear the expansion of community surveillance in places like North Miami will result in over-policing. They believe that without clear civil liberties and rights protections, issues such as targeting protesters exercising their First Amendment rights or going after teenagers for minor drug possession may occur.
“Exponentially expanding the number of privately owned surveillance cameras in our cities, and giving police special ways to access them, is an inherently dangerous idea,” Ayele Hunt, a senior campaigner for Fight for the Future, said in an interview.