EGD: Modern community surveillance threatens our human rights
A Ring doorbell. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a teenager in the early 2000s, I remember how strange the house with a security camera openly visible on its porch was.

Boy Scout activities would often lead us to knock door-to-door and the camera staring right back at us got no less awkward with each visit. Once, a friend waved while looking directly into it and enthusiastically said, “Hi!” Our scout leader was visibly uncomfortable and told him that was rude, which made its presence even more bizarre.

That oddity has slowly dissipated over the past decade, and especially in the past few years. Security cameras doubling as doorbells ubiquitously loom over the suburbs of the United States and the South Bay is no different. The adoption has been so fast that it’s now nearly impossible to watch Breaking Bad and not roll your eyes at everything Walter White does in his neighborhood seemingly unbeknownst to his neighbors.

No doubt the quick acceptance and adoption of this technology can largely be accredited to the Santa Monica-based company Ring. Founded in 2012 and acquired by Amazon in 2018, the company introduced the U.S. to the luxury of monitoring everyone walking past your home and even speaking to them through the camera. Competitors quickly sprung up trying to acquire their piece of the market share. Even Google saw the potential and launched its own rival in early 2018.

Now these gadgets are a normal part of our everyday lives. Their footage litters our Nextdoor feeds and Facebook neighborhood groups. Sometimes our neighbors simply want us to laugh at their own misfortune or that of a UPS delivery man. Other times they’re expanding the definition of neighborhood watch and asking for help identifying annoying sales reps, pesky teenagers or speeding cars. The community policing goes beyond hyper-locality with posts on Reddit, such as this one asking for help identifying what this “meth head neighbor” is saying.

However, the curious civilian looking to know exactly when their Amazon delivery arrives isn’t the market’s only target customer. Nor is the overzealous neighborhood watchperson the only demographic that has realized the technology’s potential in investigations. Police departments across the country have come to love the omnipresence of these appliances and Ring has done its best to tap that market as well.

In 2018, Ring launched its own app called Neighbors, which it dubbed “the new neighborhood watch.” The app allows Ring customers to share recordings with their neighbors. Alongside the app, Ring also launched a portal specifically for law enforcement. The portal allows law enforcement to comment on videos as well as make requests from device owners in an area where an active investigation is being conducted.

Sounds like a great idea, right? Well, it definitely gets privacy advocates and legal experts concerned.

Yesenia Flores expanded on this concern in the California Law Review last summer:

“There is a significant distinction between collection of data by a private actor who voluntarily turns it over to the police and a scheme where law enforcement partners with private actors to collect that same data. Private actors may collect information about others so long as their activity does not violate state or federal laws, whereas law enforcement investigations face Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment limitations and must comply with federal statutes that protect individual privacy and dignity interests. By partnering with Amazon, law enforcement agencies circumvent these crucial constitutional and statutory protections.”

Flores goes on to elaborate saying the Fourth Amendment is meant to protect against a general warrant, a common practice of the colonial British government. Yet the Neighbors law enforcement portal, argues Flores, “allows for such general warrants in the online space.”

But San Francisco-based nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation showed that the Fourth Amendment is not the only portion of our Bill of Rights threatened by Ring’s model. The organization obtained public records showing that the Los Angeles Police Department requested and received 12 hours of Ring video surveillance from several residents. In their report, the EFF aptly notes the concern this practice raises:

“…if police request hours of footage on either side of a specific incident, they may receive hours of people engaging in First Amendment protected activities with a vague hope that a camera may have captured illegal activity at some point.”

In addition to constitutional concerns, there’s also racial and social justice woes to Ring’s model.

In 2019, VICE reported on public records that showed a Florida police department received access to the portal in exchange for encouraging residents to adopt Ring devices. Ring gave the department 15 free doorbells with the ability to get more units as adoption in the area grows. This gives Ring an incentive to show its value to law enforcement, in turn increasing sales to their subscription service.

In the VICE piece, Chris Gilliard, an academic specializing in the study of digital redlining, states “When (entities) are incentivized to find crime, they’re going to find it no matter what. It’ll ultimately shift the definition of what is a crime and lead to over-policing in some ways.”

Ring’s intentions are further illustrated in another report by VICE documenting the company’s trainings given to law enforcement from their “partner success associates,” coaching them how to engage with the community and word their requests in order increase likelihood of obtaining camera footage.

There are four law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County that have engaged in such a partnership with Ring: San Jose Police Department, Santa Clara Police Department, Morgan Hill Police Department and Milpitas Police Department. Additionally the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, SJPD, Santa Clara police, Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department, Campbell Police Department and Los Altos Police Department all have a registry of private citizens with surveillance cameras.

As I have stated in previous columns, surveillance technology is rapidly outpacing surveillance policy. We need to reassess our values in Santa Clara County and reconsider participation in these programs that threaten our human rights and further uphold white supremacy.

San José Spotlight columnist Ethan Gregory Dodge is the founder of the Citizens Privacy Coalition of Santa Clara County. He is also the creator of Surveillance Today, a weekly newsletter and podcast discussing current events in surveillance. His columns appear every second Wednesday of the month. Contact Ethan at [email protected] or follow @egd_io on Twitter.

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