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New York Police Department Joins Crowdsourced Surveillance Ring Neighbors App

by Michael Dean Thompson

The New York Police Department (“NYPD”) has announced its decision to join Ring Neighbors, a neighborhood watch system leveraging doorbell video sharing and collaboration. The announcement heralds a dramatic expansion into the digital arena of an already technologically sophisticated police force. Together with more than 2,000 other public safety agencies in the nation, the move has worried activists concerned with digital rights and privacy as it increases the NYPD’s already formidable surveillance capabilities.

The Neighbors app is now freely accessible to the public and allows for anonymous chats and posts. The police are able to view the posts, read the chats, and request video footage. They are not, however, able to view the live feeds from the video cameras in real time at will. In addition, users of the app may block the police from viewing their activity. In the event the police require more information, they must post “Requests for Assistance” that need to be approved by a Ring moderator, and the request must be in regard to a specific investigation, not just a broad fishing expedition.

Nevertheless, further access to live feeds is possible through a direct request to Ring or a court order. Requests to the company for access must be for life-threatening events. According to Ring spokesperson Mai Nguyen, other forms of request are routinely denied. Amazon claims to have provided video to law enforcement 11 times as of July 2022.

With more than 10 million Ring devices in American homes, the increased capability of police forces to surveil neighborhoods raises troubling questions. NYPD has been using facial recognition software since 2011 to identify suspects and may feed the footage it acquires through those systems in order to track down suspects. Unfortunately, facial recognition systems have been found to be quite inaccurate for minorities, especially women of color. Despite that criticism, Mayor Eric Adams has indicated an interest in expanding the facial recognition program even as some other cities have banned its use, and civil liberties groups have sued over the constitutionality of such programs.

Vice News found three years ago that people of color were the subjects of the majority of posts tagged as “suspicious activity.” Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union asserted that the NYPD is “effectively deputizing app users.”

Lieberman added, “Crowdsourced surveillance and suspicion, like the kind that takes place on the Ring Neighbors app, is influenced by users’ racial biases and other prejudices.” 

Sources: New York Times, “What to Know Now That the N.Y.P.D. Is on Amazon’s Neighborhood Watch App”, http://nytimes.com/article/nypd-ring-app-surveillance.HTML

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