Ring doorbell's popularity in Bloomfield, New Jersey, created a private suburban surveillance network powered by Amazon.
Unlike bigger cities, residential neighborhoods such as this aren't usually filled with expensive security cameras. But the situation is changing quickly. Amazon's smart doorbell growing popularity is essentially creating a huge surveillance network based on private devices and promoted by authorities.
“Generally, most people don't have big-time surveillance systems in their home,” said Captain Vincent Kerney, detective bureau commander of the Bloomfield Police Department. “But something simple like Ring, where you just plug it in? People will go for that.”
Many police departments across the country, from big cities to towns, have offered free or discounted Ring units to their citizens, sometimes even using taxpayer money to pay Amazon. Bloomberg's citizens did not receive free units but Amazon's smart doorbell was already widely popular among its roughly 50,000 inhabitants.
It made sense, Kerney said, to partner with Ring.
In the last two years, more than 50 local police departments partnered with it. Doing so grants them access to a law enforcement dashboard, with which they can geofence specific areas and request footage when needed. Users can, in theory, opt-out from sending the footage but the police can still subpoena Ring if they want the data.
Ring's coverage in Bloomberg is by now almost total. On a heat map, there are hardly any areas hidden from a Ring camera.
“Our township is now entirely covered by cameras,” said Kerney. “Every area of town we have, there are some Ring cameras.”
Ring helps authorities outmaneuver resistance towards surveillance technology, whether a lack of funding or the concerns about privacy.
“If the police department had to go and create a plan of where it was going to put all the cameras in the neighborhood, how much it was going to cost, and take it to the city council, maybe there would be some debate,” said Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There's a reason we push for ordinances that require police department seek city council approval before they acquire any surveillance technology.”
Ring is “creating a culture where everybody is the nosy neighbor looking out the window with their binoculars,” the EFF's Maass said. “It is creating this giant pool of data that allows the government to analyze our every move, whether or not a crime is being committed.”
Surveillance footage might help police investigations. However, the huge number of cameras run by Amazon raises concerns about privacy involving both tech giants and law enforcement.
Users are familiar with Amazon being a place to shop and get cheap deals with fast shipping, but they might not be familiar with the tech giant's Orwellian side: doing business with authorities and offering cutting-edge surveillance technology, such as cameras and face-recognition software.
“What we have here is a perfect marriage between law enforcement and one of the world's biggest companies creating conditions for a society that few people would want to be a part of,” said Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.
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