In May 2019, the El Monte Police Department in California began a partnership with Ring, the Amazon-owned company best known for its motion sensor video doorbells and home security cameras. Ring cameras can be linked to its crime-sharing social media app called Neighbors. Police Chief David Reynoso explained, "If someone has a Ring camera, they download the software and then they choose to be part of the El Monte Police Department Neighbors Portal, then not only can the police department see it, but every other neighbor who's part of that portal gets to see it also."
The Neighbors Portal is an extension of the Neighbors app that allows police officers to view and comment on public posts as verified law enforcement. Police departments can share information about crime and safety events. They can also ask for help on active investigations by creating a so-called "geofence" around a crime location and requesting video footage captured on home security cameras filmed at specific times.
In a conference room at the El Monte Police Department, Captain Chris Williams played a video he accessed through the Neighbors Portal showing three young men taking turns peering into parked cars and then quickly moving on.
"Our detectives noticed the video posted, when they saw those subjects ... they recognized who they were. ... And when they eventually contacted them, they kind of admitted to what their behaviors and activities were," said Williams. "And that resulted in a filing of criminal charges for conspiracy to commit a theft."
Williams said having the footage of the young men helped officials prosecute the case. All three had prior convictions, and two were on probation at the time of their arrests. The two men on probation were recently convicted and sentenced to two years in state prison. The third individual was sentenced to 180 days in county jail.
More than 900 local police departments across the U.S. have partnered with Ring since 2018, and crime-sharing apps like Neighbors, Citizen, and Nextdoor are some of the most downloaded apps in its category, according to the mobile analytics firm AppAnnie.
But for many, the growing popularity of these digitized versions of neighborhood watch programs is cause for alarm.
In 2019, Motherboard individually reviewed more than 100 user-submitted posts in the Neighbors app over two months in the New York City area. They found that the majority of people reported as "suspicious" were people of color. Nextdoor, an app originally meant for communication between neighbors, also had its share of controversies with complaints about racial profiling by some using the app.
"These apps are dangerous because they not only reflect people's biases about marginalized people, but these apps legitimize that bias as an effective guide for addressing crime," wrote Myaisha Hayes, campaign director at Media Justice, a civil rights organiz
ation focused on equity in the digital age.
Hayes warns these apps are digitizing the same type of racial profiling associated with traditional neighborhood watch programs. "We know, given the murder of Trayvon Martin, that this bias can have life-threatening consequences for Black and brown people who may be passing through your neighborhood," she wrote in a statement to CBSN Originals.
In response to the criticism, a Ring spokesperson told CBS News that all content submitted to the app is reviewed before it goes live on the platform to make sure that it adheres to the company's community guidelines, "including our policies against racial profiling and prohibiting hate speech or other forms of prejudice."
"...We take this very seriously and have invested many resources, tools, and human power to ensure we uphold a standard of trust and civility. We are always looking at ways to improve our services and the user experience and welcome feedback from our communities," the statement from Ring said.
And a Nextdoor spokesperson said:
"...We explicitly prohibit racial profiling and take this issue extraordinarily seriously. ... We now require members to provide more information than just race including hair, top, bottom, and shoes, and these changes have reduced problematic posts by 75%. While even one incident is too many, today, less than 0.01% of all posts on Nextdoor are related to racial profiling. We remain engaged with a variety of academic and social justice experts and continue to make the prevention of racial profiling a critical company priority."
Another report on Amazon Ring from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that works to ensure civil liberties are protected in the digital world, also cautioned about the apps. It warned that these digital tools could create the illusion of a household under siege for homeowners who receive photos and alerts every time the camera detects motion or someone rings the doorbell.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation's concerns may be validated by Americans' general perceptions of crime in the U.S. According to the Pew Research Center, opinion surveys regularly show Americans believe crime is up nationally, despite the general downward trend in both violent crime and property crime. That perception could also help explain why the smart-home surveillance camera market is expected to surpass $9.7 billion by 2023.
The growing pervasiveness of home security cameras also raises privacy concerns. Motherboard reports Ring cameras and Neighbors app users are helping police quickly build out a video surveillance network while potentially avoiding the oversight and accountability demanded of most police programs. Ring's parent company, Amazon, is also venturing into facial recognition with an eye on marketing these tools to government and law enforcement agencies.
Hayes added: "The public should also know that these tools aren't just useful for spying on their neighbors — these apps are storing personal information about the user/consumer as well."
At the end of 2019, hackers were able to access sensitive personal information from Ring users and take control of more than 3,600 Ring devices. In some cases, hackers even accessed cameras inside people's homes. Ring recently announced it was adding security measures to users' accounts including mandatory two-factor authentication.
Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, recently conducted an investigation into Ring and found "an alarming disregard for basic privacy protections for consumers." He listed his concerns, which included that Ring has "no restrictions on law enforcement sharing users' footage with third parties" and "no policies that prohibit law enforcement from keeping shared video footage forever."
Amazon's vice president of public policy responded to Markey's accusations, stating in a letter to the senator: "Ring does not own or otherwise control users' videos, and we intentionally designed the Neighbors Portal to ensure that users get to decide whether to voluntarily provide their videos to the police. … We routinely evaluate our communications to users to ensure they understand they are in complete control of their video recordings."
Despite the concerns voiced by some residents and activists, the El Monte Police Department believes the Neighbors app helps keep neighborhoods safe.
"There's 4,000 views on some of these [posts]. That's a lot of information," says Reynoso. "That's saying there's 4,000 people looking at one post that we can comment on and people will see our comments that we can reach out to the public and ask them, 'Please call the Watch Commander's number. Here's their direct number.' That's huge. So to me, it's already a success."
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