The New York Police Department, which already relies on a high-tech toolkit including facial recognition software, drones and mobile X-ray vans, has joined Neighbours, a public neighborhood watch platform owned by to Amazon’s Ring where video doorbell owners can post clips, and where precincts can enlist the help of city residents in their investigations.
Announcing the collaboration with Ring, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said in a statement that “the ability to interact with New Yorkers online – often in real time – adds to comprehensive crime-fighting strategies already employed by the NYPD”.
But the vast growth of the initiative — more than 2,000 public safety agencies nationwide have signed on, including in Los Angeles and Chicago — has alarmed digital rights and privacy activists who say the platform could lead to excessive police surveillance, a burden historically borne by people of color.
In New York City, home to the largest and most sophisticated police force in the country, the company represents a dramatic expansion of the police surveillance apparatus. Here’s what to know about the partnership and some of the key questions and concerns.
What can the police see and hear?
The Neighbors mobile app, which was previously only available to Ring owners but became freely available to the public in 2018, allows users to post and chat anonymously on its platform. The feeds largely consist of video clips of stolen packages and property damage captured by Ring cameras, with alerts about thefts, fires and crimes from the Ring “press team” woven in between.
Since November 2, the city’s 77 precincts have been able to view these public feeds and conversations between neighbors, and solicit images and advice. However, the police do not have the ability to see or operate the Ring cameras while they are recording in real time.
Messages from law enforcement, which are labeled “requests for assistance,” must relate to a specific investigation and are reviewed by a Ring moderator for compliance before appearing on the app.
A few of the city’s neighborhoods have already started using Neighbours. The 83rd Precinct filed two requests for assistance requesting information about an attempted theft on Nov. 14 and a reported e-bike theft on Nov. 9. November 10.
Users can ignore or even block these requests from their feed. But police can still obtain private footage through a court order or directly through Ring. Such requests to the company are for life-threatening emergencies and are routinely denied, Ring spokeswoman Mai Nguyen said.
Ring provided footage to law enforcement in at least 11 cases through July this year, according to Amazon.
With more than 10 million Ring cameras sold, the device’s ubiquity has alarmed groups and digital privacy officials, who say millions of Americans are being recorded daily without their knowledge.
Matthew Guariglia, a political analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said the police’s ability to view the messages, even if they are public, was “puzzling” because members can no longer use the platform as a way to avoid involving the police.
Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts said he was “troubled” by Ring’s “invasive data collection and problematic engagement with law enforcement” in a letter he sent to Ring in June, signaling the device’s ability to record audible conversations up to 20 feet away. . The doorbell’s sensors can scan up to 25 feet, according to the company’s website.
“The public’s right to assemble, roam and converse without being tracked is at risk,” Mr. Markey warned in the letter, demanding that Amazon remove Ring’s ability to record audio.
In a response to the senator the following month, Amazon refused to disable sound recordings on Ring doorbells.
How will the police use the data they collect?
Police have long asked for the public’s help in identifying suspects caught on surveillance cameras for the cases they investigate – from property crimes to assaults to homicides – often releasing videos and photos of suspects through social media posts and press releases. A police department spokesperson said the platform would serve as an extension of the agency’s existing tip collection methods.
The images and footage police collect through Neighbors could then be run through facial recognition software, which they have used since 2011 to track down suspects.
But the use of facial recognition software has been controversial. Studies have shown the technology to be inaccurate, especially when identifying women of color. And it is possible that these mismatches are then shared with other agencies, such as immigration services.
And even as civil liberties groups have sued the constitutionality of technologies like facial recognition, which other cities have banned from law enforcement use, Mayor Eric Adams alluded to the expansion of the program.
Has Ring’s law enforcement partnership had an effect on crime?
A number of experts have argued that the program has little effect on reducing crime.
In 2015, Ring piloted a partnership program with the Los Angeles Police Department to distribute free devices to Wilshire Park residents, claiming at the end of the six-month experiment there was a 55% reduction. crime in the neighborhood.
But a 2018 MIT Technology Review analysis found Ring’s methodology to be flawed. Using public data to conduct its own analysis, The Review was unable to corroborate Ring’s claim; instead, it found that burglaries in Wilshire Park increased during the 2015 pilot program and were higher in 2017 than in the previous seven years. A 2020 NBC News investigation of 40 police departments in eight states that had partnered with Ring also found little evidence of a decrease in crime.
Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor who studies policing and crime, said he doesn’t believe Ring’s collaboration with police will make neighborhoods safer, instead warning, “I think it creates a risk of misidentification, and that’s a problem. ”
What concerns have activists raised about racial profiling and police surveillance?
Three years ago, Vice News spent two months tracking app content in a five-mile area covering Lower Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and parts of Queens and Hoboken, NJ, and found that people of color made up the majority of messages. marked as “suspicious activity”.
It echoed a disturbing pattern of behavior that had plagued other neighborhood watch platforms, like Nextdoor and Citizen, which civil liberty groups say could give a false impression of rising crime and lead to profiling. race and wrongful arrests.
“The NYPD is effectively replacing app users,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said of Neighbors. “Participatory surveillance and suspicion, such as that taking place on the Ring’s Neighbors app, is influenced by users’ racial and other biases.”
The city’s police department, which developed one of the nation’s most sophisticated post-9/11 surveillance apparatuses, has a well-documented history of monitoring minority communities. .
In 2018, the police department settled a lawsuit over the surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey through a decade-long spy program in which officers eavesdropped on coffeehouse conversations and designated mosques as terrorist organizations. potential. According to the lawsuit, the police collected license plates and took videos and photos at the mosques as part of their covert surveillance.
And in a 2021 report, Amnesty International detailed police ability to view footage from more than 15,000 CCTV cameras installed in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn alone, with a disproportionate number of those cameras located in communities in color.
The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York-based privacy and civil rights group, condemned the police’s partnership with Neighbors.
“This kind of crowd-sourced surveillance will only lead to more wrongful arrests, racial profiling and police brutality,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the organization’s executive director, said in a press release. “Most New Yorkers would guess the installation of these home surveillance tools if they understood how easily these systems could be used against them and their families by the police.”