by Anthony W. Accurso
Amazon Ring announced it would change how it allows police departments to request recordings from users' cameras.
Previously, police departments could make a "request for assistance" to all users in a square mile of interest using an automatic bulk email system. This system was complicated for watchdog groups to track as it required the filing of frequent public records requests to multiple police departments to find out which had made requests.
Even with this hurdle in place, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was able to learn the Los Angeles Police Department targeted Black Lives Matter protests in May and June of 2020 by making bulk requests for footage that recorded only First Amendment protected activity.
The new system is more transparent because all requests in an area of interest will be processed through Ring's Neighbors app. Users of the app will see the request in their app's feed, but even more importantly, every request made by a participating law enforcement agency will be posted on that agency's public feed. This will eliminate the need to file public records requests with multiple agencies, as watchdog groups will now be able to monitor these agencies' public feeds.
The EFF expects Ring will attempt to get more Ring users to participate in its Neighbors app to continue the suspiciously close relationship with police departments around the county. Ring currently has a partnership agreement with approximately one in every ten police departments around the country, and often Ring prohibits the police from disclosing this relationship even exists. Under these agreements, Ring provides free cameras to police departments for distribution in communities.
Police benefit from the ability to obtain camera footage of alleged criminal behavior, but the public is less aware of Ring's incentive to partner so closely with police.
Like its peer apps Nextdoor and Citizen, the Neighbors app benefits by registering users and incentivizing participation; they do so by pushing a narrative of fear--that violent crime is more prevalent than it is and that participation in the apps will make users safer.
The actual outcome is that racism and a fear of loss of privilege motivate users to disproportionately target and report black and brown persons who live in or visit neighborhoods for unnecessary or (sometimes) illegal scrutiny by police. When users allege possible "criminal" activity, Ring allows police to invade the privacy of innocent citizens and track them quickly, activities which (before Ring) required a warrant.
If Ring wanted to make its product less harmful to minorities, it would only allow the distribution of footage to police who first obtain a warrant.
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