Ring app

The "Neighbors" app lets people see publicly-shared "Ring" surveillance videos and local news updates. This is the newsfeed of the app on an iPhone Friday, Aug. 30, 2019.


Ring, a doorbell-camera company, has established video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces in the United States, The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell reported Aug. 28. “The partnerships let police request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area, helping officers see footage from the company’s millions of Internet-connected cameras installed nationwide,” Harwell wrote. In localizing the Post’s story for the Aug. 31 LNP, Lindsey Blest reported that the Manheim Township Police Department is among those partnering with Ring, with one member of that department calling it “another tool in the toolbox.”

Tom Kruschinsky, commenting on LancasterOnline, beat us to the one-liner: “Law enforcement having unrestricted access to private video security systems? What could possibly go wrong?”

Of course, there’s much more nuance to this issue than “unrestricted access,” but we believe the overarching concern is legitimate. This is something we should sit up and pay attention to, because as each piece of our privacy is eroded, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to get it back.

Ring was launched in 2013 as a line of internet-connected “smart doorbells,” and is now one of the biggest companies in the home security market. Its users “are alerted when the doorbell chimes or the camera senses motion, and they can view their camera’s live feed from afar using a mobile app,” the Post’s Harwell wrote.

And this is state-of-the-art technology, not the kind of grainy surveillance video we might be more familiar with from older security cameras.

Ring’s high-resolution cameras “can provide detailed images of not just a front doorstep but also neighboring homes across the street and down the block,” the Post noted. (Another interesting aspect of this issue: Ring is owned by Amazon, which was founded by Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.)

Ring’s partnership with police departments began in early 2018 and has seen rapid growth. How does it work? Ring users can opt to share their camera footage to Ring’s public social network, called Neighbors. It “allows people to report local crimes, discuss suspicious events and share videos from their Ring cameras, cellphones and other devices,” Harwell wrote.

Police departments that work with Ring can tap into the Neighbors public feed. “Officers can chat directly with users on the Neighbors feed and get alerts when a homeowner posts a message from inside their watched jurisdiction,” Harwell wrote. “To seek out Ring video that has not been publicly shared, officers can use a special ‘Neighbors Portal’ map interface 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.”

So it’s not quite “unrestricted access.” But it has a wide potential reach, which we find concerning. Ring makes providing video to the authorities simple. And wouldn’t most of us reflexively want to help the police?

But the issue isn’t that simple.

We’re certainly not against assisting police departments. We agree with Quarryville police Chief Clark Bearinger, who stated in a new release, “Access to video following a crime can be the difference in solving the crime or not.”

But the scope of what would potentially be available through an ever-widening Ring partnership with law enforcement gives us pause. And we’re not the only ones. National media outlets raise good points about privacy, surveillance and tech giants like Amazon.

— Law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson told the Post that Ring has found “a clever workaround for the development of a wholly new surveillance network, without the kind of scrutiny that would happen if it was coming from the police or government.”

— The Post also notes that Amazon, Ring’s parent company, has already developed facial-recognition software that’s used by police. Ring does not currently incorporate facial-recognition, but it’s not farfetched to imagine that as a future feature.

— On the Aug. 28 episode of Fox News’ “The Five,” legal analyst Emily Compagno said, “I think there is a fine line ... between private surveillance and government surveillance,” and she also noted “that technology has outgrown the legal field ... and the law hasn’t quite caught up.” On the same show, former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz highlighted privacy concerns with Amazon. With Ring, Chaffetz fears Amazon knows “when you come, when you leave, who you go with, who you don’t come with, what your face looks like, what hat you wear, (and) what jeans you’re wearing.”

We’re not saying people shouldn’t have cutting-edge home security.

And we’re not saying people shouldn’t cooperate with law enforcement if they have video evidence of a potential crime. We certainly think they should, and they must.

We’re just asking everyone to think about the privacy and liberty we might be surrendering each time we click “Yes” on another opt-in or share request with new technology.

Because chances are that once another aspect of privacy is gone, it’s gone for good.