Should police have access to video doorbell footage?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

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With the holiday shopping season in full swing, one of the most popular items will likely be doorbell cameras. Products like Ring video doorbells and Google’s Hello, which allow users to watch and record activity at their front doors, have exploded in popularity in recent years. 

The appeal of these cameras isn’t just for individual homeowners worried about having a packages nabbed from their porches. Police departments are increasingly interested in gaining access to what the doorbells capture. Ring, which is owned by Amazon, has partnered with more than 600 police forces across the country to allow them to download footage to use as evidence. 

These partnerships allow police to tap into a massive network of cameras in their communities that might prove crucial to solving crimes. According to Ring, police can only obtain the footage if given permission by the owner of the device. However, the company’s policies appear to allow for release of footage without user consent or knowledge with a valid search warrant. 

Why there’s debate

The spread of smart home technology — doorbell cameras, smart speakers, fitness trackers, etc. — has sparked a discussion over whether the benefits of these devices outweigh the loss of privacy and the potential for abuse. That debate only intensifies when law enforcement becomes involved.

Police departments argue that the cameras have already proven to be invaluable in solving crimes. Ring’s network allows police to access footage of a potential crime within minutes, making it more likely they can intervene to stop it or catch the perpetrator. Sharing footage is voluntary, which limits concerns about privacy, Ring says.

Privacy advocates argue that the agreements only protect the owner of the device and do not require consent from anyone else captured in the video. Ring puts no limits on what police can do with the footage once they have it, whom they can share it with or how long they can keep it. Having faith that these agreements won’t be abused, some experts argue, means trusting the word of both major technology companies and law enforcement, two groups that have a shaky records regarding transparency. There are also major concerns about privacy implications if the cameras are equipped with facial recognition technology, a step Ring has “contemplated.” 

What’s next

In response to concerns over privacy, dozens of cities across the country have passed ordinances that give citizens a say over whether police can obtain and use surveillance technology. You can see whether your local police department has partnered with Ring by searching this map

Perspectives

Privacy Problem

The agreements aren’t too bad now, but could easily become a problem

“We should recognize this pattern: Tech that seems like an obvious good can develop darker dimensions as capabilities improve and data shifts into new hands. A terms-of-service update, a face-recognition upgrade or a hack could turn your doorbell into a privacy invasion you didn’t see coming.” — Geoffrey A. Fowler, Washington Post

Consumer products could quickly become a government spying infrastructure

“Amazon is building a very effective surveillance state that we would be offended if the government tried to mandate, but somehow as consumers, we seem OK with giving up this information to a private company.” — Technology expert Andrew Ferguson to Marketplace

We shouldn’t trust tech companies or police to follow restrictions

“I would be skeptical of any law enforcement agency or company telling me there’s no other way to get access to this [footage].” — Privacy law expert Margot Kaminski to Denver Post

The cameras create a dangerous false impression of rising crime

“Violent crime is down across the board in America, but the cameras and the links to the Neighbors app have the ability to ramp up fear of invaders or people who don’t belong in particular neighborhoods ─ and that fear could bring harm to people.” — Big data expert Chris Gilliard to NBC News

The public needs more time to decide whether to consider the issue

“With little public discussion at the local level about the convergence of law enforcement and Big Tech, governments should tap the brakes on these partnerships until the implications can be fully understood.” — Editorial, Post and Courier (South Carolina)

Safer Communities

The benefits outweigh the harm

“The benefits of using doorbell cams and other similar security video services seem to outweigh most of those worries. And neighborhood partnerships with local law enforcement make a lot of sense when you want to protect your home and catch the bad guys.” — Kerry Hubartt, News-Sentinel (Indiana)

The rules don’t allow space for abuse

“In order to share nonpublic video footage with law enforcement, customers receive a notification of law enforcement’s request and must affirmatively ‘click’ to approve the sharing. Assuming that controls such as these are in place and followed, Amazon Ring appears to be respecting the individual autonomy of its customers.” — Robert Foehl, The Hill

Users can take small steps to protect privacy

“If there’s a compromise that offers security but also protects everyone’s privacy, it’s being mindful of the placement of security cameras so that they don’t pick up everyday visitors or people on the street. … It also means staying away from neighborhood apps and disabling the audio recording on cameras.” — Thorin Klosowski, New York Times

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