Doorbell cameras in Wilmington are a popular housing trend, but they may be watching more than you think. This possibility could mean the police are watching too.
In August 2019, the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) began a partnership with Santa Monica, CA-based company Ring, and its “Neighbors” application. Ring manufactures video doorbells, and the Neighbors app allows users — and now the police — to watch doorbell videos from almost any location.
Wilmington joins over 400 other law enforcement agencies in the United States who can access hundreds of thousands of homeowners’ camera footage to “prevent and investigate crimes.” While more video footage will lead to more criminal prosecutions, it may also benefit innocent people to demonstrate they were not involved in the allegations.
The partnership will undoubtedly help solve some property crimes, like package theft. But, the arrangement raises important privacy concerns.
Does the Ring and WPD Partnership Go too Far?
WPD waited a month before making its partnership official. During this time period, the police used the Neighbors app to solve at least one crime. However, this partnership is not a one-way street. The police can access the video from residents, but the residents also get crime tips and notifications from the police — whether or not they actually own a Ring doorbell.
According to WPD spokeswoman Linda Thompson, the goal is to “support safer neighborhoods and more connected communities by creating a free tool for residents and local law enforcement to share real-time local crime and safety information whether or not they own a Ring device.”
The relationship between Ring and law enforcement agencies is not governed by law or regulations. Instead, it’s the company’s own policies that apply. These policies state the following:
- Police must identify themselves when viewing or commenting on public posts.
- Officers must use the “Video Request Tool” to ask Ring to obtain video footage from device owners, meaning that officers cannot initially contact users.
- A video request must reference a relevant case and can only ask for video footage from a limited time frame and location.
- Users can decide to decline, share all relevant videos, share only certain videos or to opt-out of all future requests.
- Law enforcement can never get direct access to cameras.
- Officers cannot identify users by looking at account information.
- Ring does not provide the address of doorbells from which video was taken.
- Only if a user consents to share a video is their address and email shared with the police.
These policies seem reasonable, but cases will likely occur to test their ability to balance public safety with citizens’ rights to privacy.
One potential problem is that a video doorbell user may have the ability to share footage extending beyond their property to another person’s property who may not have consented to share the video — much less to allow law enforcement access to the video.
Ring Intends to Use Facial Recognition in the Future
Ring is also attempting to pair its video doorbells with facial recognition technology. This development was reported last year by the ACLU, who obtained a patent application from Amazon, the owner of Ring.
The patent application described a system in which the doorbell can recognize faces and cross-check them against a database of suspicious people. If a suspicious person is tagged at the doorbell, the system alerts the police.
The world’s largest corporation may soon be managing and sharing a database of “suspicious” people with the authorities, not all of whom may have been convicted of crimes. This sharing of information has the potential to deprive people of their right to due process.
Another issue is that facial recognition is not as accurate for dark-skinned individuals, meaning people of color may be tagged more frequently as suspicious by the system. The disproportionate impact could raise significant legal issues — assuming the police begin using it.
Protect Your Rights with the Help of a Criminal Defense Attorney
Is the erosion of our privacy for the sake of safety and convenience the direction we wish to take as a society? What’s worse is that these decisions are not in the hands of ordinary citizens. Large corporations like Amazon are increasingly making these decisions for us.
If you have been accused of a crime in connection with Ring doorbell video footage, a Wilmington criminal defense lawyer can help. There are ways to challenge these cases, and you are always best served by reviewing the evidence with an experienced attorney.
For a free consultation, call Goolsby Law Firm today at (910) 763–3339.
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