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Over 400 police agencies have partnered with doorbell company Ring

Some privacy experts have concerns about video-sharing partnerships with police

By Julie Shaw
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Over the summer, someone was stealing security cameras from outside homes in Drexel Hill, Delaware County. The alleged culprit was identified by video footage shared by other residents with Ring doorbell cameras, an Upper Darby police detective said Wednesday.

The Ring cameras “helped solve a crime,” said Detective Chris Karr. But police still had to do some legwork to identify the suspect — a 14-year-old Philadelphia boy who was charged with stealing five cameras.

The Upper Darby Police Department is one of more than 400 police forces nationwide that have developed partnerships with the doorbell-camera company Ring, according to the Washington Post. The partnerships allow police to request video from residents’ cameras, but do not allow them live-video access.

In Philadelphia two weeks ago, a Tioga resident’s Ring doorbell camera captured parts of a 7½-hour standoff between police and alleged gunman Maurice Hill, who shot and wounded six police officers and barricaded himself inside a house on the 3700 block of North 15th Street. Because the camera is activated by movement, the recording started and stopped frequently, creating gaps in the footage.

The Philadelphia Police Department does not have a partnership with Ring, Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesperson, said Wednesday. He declined to comment on whether the department is considering partnering with Ring or looking into using any other specific investigative tool.

The Post included in its online article a map that allows readers to click on certain locations and see police departments that have partnerships with Ring. Besides Upper Darby, those departments in the Philadelphia region include: Hatfield, Lower Gwynedd, and Lower Salford Townships and Lansdale in Montgomery County; Manheim Township in Lancaster County; Lindenwold in Camden County; and Lakewood and Manchester Townships in Ocean County.

Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan said police in his county do not have any agreements with Ring. “When needed, we either get consent to pull the video from the homeowner or get a search warrant,” he said.

Karr and police at other departments in the region that have partnerships with Ring — which was acquired by Inc. last year — said the program costs their agencies nothing.

Some privacy experts have concerns about video-sharing partnerships with police. Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, leveled strong criticism at Amazon in an email Wednesday.

“It’s disturbing but not surprising that Amazon has agreed to this kind of private-public partnership to expand the surveillance state,” Hoover wrote. “The company and its law enforcement partners have created a system in which people merely going about their daily business could be deemed ‘suspicious.’ Historically, this kind of police power is disproportionately used against people of color, immigrants, and people who have been incarcerated.”

Added Hoover: “Police departments are eager to create a wide network of surveillance, and Amazon is all too willing to help them. The best thing people can do is advocate to their local elected officials to refuse this partnership.”

Lansdale Police Chief Michael Trail said he was not aware of any complaints about privacy.

“One of the things I like about the Ring program is, it’s up to the end user to allow us to see their video,” Trail said. “We have to make a request. There are safeguards in place.”

Although the Ring camera is an “incredibly powerful tool,” he said, police still need to vet footage captured by the surveillance cameras with other sources.

Trail said “the jury’s still out” on whether the private-public partnership has benefited the department in solving crimes.

“There was no cost to join it,” which the department did in May, he said, so “it’s been a win-win in that situation.”

The partnership serves as another means to communicate with residents, like the “old community watch, ‘Tell a neighbor, tell a friend,’ ” Trail said.

“We take privacy concerns very seriously,” said Karr of Upper Darby. “We can’t tell who has any surveillance system unless we specifically see it. We don’t have access to Ring’s database.”

Besides doorbell cameras, California-based Ring also has motion-detecting cameras that residents can put around their homes and on rooftops.

Police can obtain Ring videos in two ways, Karr said: They can knock on someone’s door and if the resident consents, the resident can email the video link to police. Police also can send a message through Ring’s Neighbors app seeking video in a certain area. Anybody can sign up for the app, not just Ring subscribers, he said.

Ring makes it easier for residents to share video, he said, emphasizing that “the homeowner has to give explicit permission” for the police to see the video and can decline requests.

Manheim Township Police Chief Tom Rudzinski said his department of 66 officers has had its Ring partnership for a month. He said he couldn’t yet credit it with solving a crime, but finds the technology “cool.”

He said he realizes there are privacy issues.

“Some people have problems with being videotaped sometimes,” he said. “But if you’re in my front yard, you’re in my front yard.”

©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer