Big Brother, Big Business, Big Law Enforcement
by Ed Lyon
The word ring has traditionally been used as a verb to describe what a bell does, whether it is mounted on a steeple or on the wall inside a residence. A product innovation by Amazon converts it to a trade name: Ring™.
The home security system features a line of products, notably a Wi-Fi connected doorbell that serves the dual function of visitors being allowed to announce their arrival by pushing the button and being surveilled by the device’s video camera at the same time. The resident can monitor the camera in real time on a neighborhood watch app via cellphone whether someone is at the door or not. A Ring Door View Cam can send detected motion and allow for talking with visitors on a live video screen, plus share doorbell footage with others.
“Well, what will they think of next?” you might ask. How about a merging of Big Brother and Big Business regarding a motherlode of surveillance to law enforcement agencies? And the best part of this for the cops is this treasure-trove of surveillance data is mainly available warrant-free.
Ring confirms that cooperative agreements between Amazon and hundreds of police departments exist. Vice.com reports that Ring “has formed partnerships with at least 225 law enforcement agencies, enticed cities to finance discounts on its cameras with taxpayer money, and worked with police to organize package theft sting operations in several U.S. cities.”
The Lakeland Police Department (“LPD”) in Florida is the showcase example of this, vice.com reports.
By training ranking cops as a dedicated social media manager, a community relations and/or a press coordinator (one cop may hold one or more of these positions), Amazon will partner with that department to sell its Ring surveillance systems and, in return, will facilitate access to the surveillance data gleaned through Neighbors, the neighborhood watch app downloaded by each Ring user, via Ring’s Law Enforcement Portal.
Amazon began its partnership with LPD by giving them 15 Ring systems to give to 15 lucky citizens for free, while encouraging them to enlist in Neighbors. For every qualifying download a citizen participates in, LPD is given a $10 credit toward another Ring system to give away to another lucky citizen. The doorbell with video starts at about $100.
The upshot here is that police, who already have gargantuan numbers of cameras covering streets and other areas funded by taxpayers, will soon have an even wider field of surveillance data available to them through the mass proliferation of similar systems set up in private residences.
No warrant is needed to gain access to this data. All a homeowner needs to do is give their permission. If the resident has opted into Neighborhood, it stands to reason that any cop (investigator) who is also a Neighborhood app user would have unfettered access to shared imagery warrant/permission-free by virtue of being an app user.
Never mind the Ring Law Enforcement Access Portal, cops have already used this membership technique to gain access to millions of DNA profiles held by private genealogy companies that are not in CODIS or other police-operated databases. See: CLN, July 2019, p. 40.
English professor Chris Gillard of Macomb Community College studies various discriminatory practices and digital redlining techniques made available by data mining like that provided by Ring’s Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal. His take on this is: “When really powerful companies, or police for that matter, are incentivized to find crime, they’re going to find it no matter what. It’ll ultimately shift the definition of what is a crime and lead to over-policing in some ways. Frankly, [it’s] the broken windows style [of policing] that tends to harm marginalized communities more.” More simply put, such a surveillance network could very easily put people’s lives at risk by taking the fear of crime to even higher levels.
Professor Andrew Ferguson of the University of the District of Columbia School of Law points out: “What people fundamentally misunderstand is that self-surveillance is potentially a form of government surveillance. Because the information you are collecting-you think to augment and improve your life-is one step away from being obtained by law enforcement to completely upend your life.”
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