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Doorbell camera firm Ring working with more than 400 police forces

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/28/2019 Doug Stanglin and Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY
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More than 405 police forces nationwide have joined video-sharing partnerships with the doorbell-camera company Ring, giving officers potential access to camera footage taken at front doors of private homes in numerous neighborhoods, company officials said Wednesday.

The doorbell-camera devices can stream real-time video to a user's smartphone, tablet or desktop, allowing homeowners to see and talk to people on their doorsteps. 

The impact is enhanced if an owner chooses to join Neighbors, an app developed by Ring that shares information among nearby residents, including the locations of their video or written posts. Neighbors operates as an open forum for people to ask one another about suspicious activities.

That capability is multiplied many times over through the cooperation agreements between Ring and police in what the company views as a new "neighborhood watch" system in communities across the country.

a screenshot of a cell phone: Some doorbell-camera devices can stream real-time video to a user's smartphone, tablet or desktop, allowing homeowners to see and talk to people on their doorsteps.© Ring Some doorbell-camera devices can stream real-time video to a user's smartphone, tablet or desktop, allowing homeowners to see and talk to people on their doorsteps.

"We share updates when new law enforcement agencies join Neighbors through the app, social media and local press, but our users have asked for an additional way to search this information," Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff said in a blog post. "Our new Active Law Enforcement Map makes it even easier for users to see if their local law enforcement team is involved with Neighbors. We will keep the map updated so users can search either by zip code, address or visually by zooming into a region or city."

He added that Ring ensures that users stay in control of the information they share, and that their privacy is protected.

The growing arrangements are an outgrowth of the booming doorbell surveillance business. More than 3.4 million doorbell recording devices were expected to be sold last year. Market research firm Strategy Analytics expects sales to reach $1.4 billion by 2023, up from $500 million last year.  

Ring Inc., one of the leading makers of motion-sensing doorbells, was purchased by Amazon for $853 million last year.

Using the Neighbors app system, homeowners in a micro-targeted area can opt to share real-time crime and safety alerts, including text updates, photos and videos taken on any device, not just Ring's. 

Under the agreements with police, law enforcement can monitor this publicly shared information and videos. Police, through Ring, can then request a specific video from a homeowner's cameras.

Privacy advocates are appalled. 

"By sending photos and alerts every time the camera detects motion or someone rings the doorbell, the app can create an illusion of a household under siege," notes Matthew Guariglia of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It turns what seems like a perfectly safe neighborhood into a source of anxiety and fear. This raises the question: Do you really need Ring, or have Amazon and the police misled you into thinking that you do?"

According to the company, officers must state what they are investigating "within a specific, limited time range and area."

"Most people will share with this," Green Bay, Wisconsin, police Capt. Jeremy Muraski said. "From that privacy standpoint, though, it's good that they have that choice."

The program has found favor among numerous police departments from New York to Texas to Virginia. Many have even offered free or discounted Ring doorbells for their communities.

"Our township is now entirely covered by cameras," Capt. Vincent Kerney, detective bureau commander of the Bloomfield Police Department in New Jersey, tells CNET. "Every area of town we have, there are some Ring cameras."

The Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia has spent $50,000 to offer discounts on 1,000 cameras, according to The Associated Press. Several other area communities also participate in subsidy programs, and Los Angeles County officials recently voted to take part.

“It’s crazy how many people have doorbell cameras ... it’s going to be an advantage for us,” Waukee police Sgt. Mackenzie Sposeto said. “We just started thinking outside of the box and, knowing that we’re already going to businesses, so why aren’t we involving the community to be proactive with us?”

Siminoff told USA TODAY earlier this year that Ring has proven itself as a crime-fighting tool. 

"We focus on home burglaries, but we've caught car vandalism, rapists, major things," he says. "There's a benefit to having a network of cameras in a neighborhood. Someone is at the front door and you say `Hey, can I help you?' They don’t break in, because of the contact, and now the other houses in the neighborhood are safer, because the crook moves on to somewhere else."

"Any time we have more eyes on the street, the better," says Sgt. Craig Herrmann of the Shawnee, Kansas, police department. "We benefit when we can connect with citizens about what's going on."

In Phoenix, police Sgt. Vince Lewis says flatly that it can make a "significant reduction" in crime" because "that one tip from the community can give us the lead we need."

Police point to specific cases:

• In Brooklyn, Iowa, video footage from a home security camera led police to the car of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the man accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts last summer.

• In Green Bay, police last year shared video on social media that had been posted publicly on the Ring Neighbors app of a man stealing from vehicles on the city's west side and asked for the public's help in identifying a suspect. The department had the man's name within five minutes, Muraski said. Officers met with the man, showed him he had been caught on camera – and the man, in the end, admitted committing the crimes. 

Muraski describes Ring as "Facebook meets neighborhood watch." He said anyone can download the Ring Neighbors app to see what's going on in their neighborhoods, and other areas, by viewing surveillance clips, alerts and other information those with Ring doorbells are sharing on the site. 

But the spread of the systems has raised concerns among privacy and civil liberties groups.

The staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called the system "an unmitigated disaster" for the privacy of many neighborhoods.

Through the subsidy programs, Amazon "gets to offer, at taxpayer dime, discounted products that allow it to really expand its tentacles into wide areas of private life way more than it already has," Mohammad Tajsar said, according to the AP.

Tim Muth, an attorney at ACLU of Wisconsin, said civil rights advocates and the ACLU are particularly concerned about "a growing surveillance state with police having access to an ever-expanding network of cameras."

Critics also say Ring appears to be marketing its cameras by stirring up fear of crime at a time when it's decreasing.

"Amazon is profiting off of fear," said Chris Gilliard, an English professor at Michigan's Macomb Community College and a prominent critic of Ring and other technology that he says can reinforce race barriers. He tells The Associated Press that part of the strategy seems to be selling the cameras "where the fear of crime is more real than the actual existence of crime." 

The subsidy plans are often very generous.

Green Bay gets one free camera for every 20 people who sign up for the Ring app through a city link. Initially, police required recipients of those free cameras to agree to provide any video police requested. It dropped the requirement after the AP began reporting this story.

Ring itself has spoken out against these kinds of agreements.

"Ring does not support programs that require recipients to subscribe to a recording plan or share footage as a condition for receiving a donated device," Ring said in a statement. "We are actively working with partners to ensure this is reflected in their programs." 

Some departments are skittish about simply joining a company-organized sharing system.

In the Minneapolis suburb of Coon Rapids, a thief stole a 7-foot, 150-pound bald eagle carving from Larry Eklund's yard earlier this year. Police had a key piece of evidence: an image of the suspect looking directly into Eklund's doorbell camera, the AP reports. Within hours after police posted the video on social media, the carving was returned.

But Coon Rapids chose not to partner with Ring and instead began its own in-house volunteer camera registry. Trish Heitman, a community-outreach specialist for the police department, said the city did not want to promote a particular camera brand.

Coon Rapids also wanted to keep its list of registered camera owners private. If a crime occurs near a camera, police can contact homeowners in the registry to see if they want to share video.

If any partnership required data sharing, "we would never do it," Heitman said.

A major issue in the debate is just how effective the system is in reducing crime, as there are few statistics. 

Ring claims the cameras worked to decrease burglaries by 55% when distributed to about 40 homes in the Wilshire Park section of Los Angeles in mid-2015. Los Angeles records show burglaries in the neighborhood dropped from 26 in 2014 to 17 in 2015 and 20 in 2016. The number rebounded, however, to a seven-year high of 30 in that neighborhood in 2017 before declining to 27 in 2018.

Contributing: David M. Zimmer, North Jersey Record; Gage Miskimen, Des Moines Register

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Doorbell camera firm Ring working with more than 400 police forces

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