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Is Ring’s collaboration with police departments a public benefit or a privacy concern? That’s the issue raised by an announcement from the Amazon-owned smart doorbell maker, in which it touts its work with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country in the name of “safer neighborhoods.”

The Washington Post called out the surveillance partnership in a report on Wednesday, in which one expert called the effort “a clever workaround for the development of a wholly new surveillance network.” Ring founder Jamie Siminoff defended the practice in a company blog post titled “Working Together for Safer Neighborhoods.”

According to Ring, more than 400 police agencies are using the Neighbors Portal, an extension of the company’s Neighbors app, where owners of the security devices can share videos from their cameras, report local crimes or discuss anything from suspicious people on the street to missing pets. Ring says law enforcement engages with communities by posting information about crime and safety events, viewing and commenting on public posts or asking for help on active investigations by submitting requests for video recordings.

Siminoff wrote that the company, acquired by Amazon in 2018 for a reported $1 billion, updates users when new law enforcement agencies join Neighbors. The company released a new Active Law Enforcement Map, below, to show users where law enforcement is involved.

The Post, in saying that it was first to report the number of agencies involved, reported on the surprise of some civil liberties advocates and what is likely to “fuel broader questions about privacy, surveillance and the expanding reach of tech giants and local police.”

While the company and police call the vast network of cameras a defense against intruders and thieves, experts on the other side warn in the Post against “eyes-everywhere ambitions” that could “turn residents into informants, and subject innocent people, including those who Ring users have flagged as ‘suspicious,’ to greater surveillance and potential risk.”

In a Wednesday tweet, the American Civil Liberties Union called out the Post story and said, “Big brother is watching — right at our front doors.”

Only one community in Washington state shows up on Ring’s map right now, in Edgewood, in Pierce County. The Post reported vast areas of other states are covered — 31 agencies in California, 57 in Texas and 67 in Florida.

Siminoff previously shared how the Neighbors Portal works to “limit the information that law enforcement is able to access so that our users’ privacy is protected.”

  • No access to devices: Law enforcement are never given access to users’ cameras or devices through the Neighbors Portal or by Ring.
  • No user account information: Users are identified only as “Neighbor #”. Although law enforcement knows the users posting content reside within their jurisdiction, law enforcement cannot see or access user account information.
  • No device location: The Neighbors Portal does not provide law enforcement with the addresses at which any devices are located.
  • No direct access to users when making video requests: Law enforcement must go through the Ring team when making a video request. Ring does not provide law enforcement with information about our users unless a user decides to share video recordings with law enforcement in which case the user’s email and location address are disclosed.

According to the Post, if officers are seeking a video that has not been publicly shared, they can use a special map interface in Neighbors Portal to designate a time range and local area, up to half a square mile wide, and get Ring to send an automated email to all users within that range, alongside a case number and message from police.

The user can click to share their Ring videos, review them before sharing, decline or, at the bottom of the email, unsubscribe from future footage-sharing requests, the Post said. “If you would like to take direct action to make your neighborhood safer, this is a great opportunity,” an email supplied by Ring states.

Read the complete Washington Post story for more details and reaction.

Update, Wednesday, 9:15 p.m. PT: A Ring spokesperson reached out to GeekWire to provide the following statement:

“The Washington Post story on Ring includes several misleading statements about how law enforcement agencies participate in the Neighbors program. We want to set the record straight — customers, not law enforcement, are in control of their videos. Videos are shared through the Neighbors program only if: 1) a customer chooses to post it publicly on the Neighbors app; 2) explicit consent is provided by the customer. Law enforcement agencies who participate in the Neighbors app must go through the Ring team when making a video request to customers. Customers can choose to opt out or decline any request, and law enforcement agencies have no visibility into which customers have received a request and which have opted out or declined. You can learn more on our blog.

Editor’s note: Privacy, surveillance and security will be the focus of a discussion at the 2019 GeekWire Summit in Seattle. More information about the Summit, taking place Oct. 7-9, here.

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