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More than 2,000 police and fire departments have partnerships with Amazon to use surveillance video from its Ring security cameras. This week, the company changed the way law enforcement can access that video. Police used to be able to directly email users without making the request public. Now, departments will have to post public requests on Amazon’s Neighbors app and include some details about the relevant investigation.
I spoke with Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University and author of the book “The Rise of Big Data Policing.” I asked him what led to the change. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Andrew Guthrie Ferguson: So Amazon [was] getting a lot of pushback from people who recognize that the direct request from police was very coercive. Like this was sold as, “Oh, this is consent. You can consent.” But if police are contacting you directly for information, it’s very hard to say no. And so this sort of small step toward transparency is that they are now publicly going to sort of request to the general public, “If you have information, if you have a video, please upload it here.”
Amy Scott: Do you have a sense that this will be less effective for the police?
Ferguson: I think this change will result in less shared videos, in part because if you’re paying attention to want to share it — you’re not getting a direct request — you have to see the posts that police are putting out there. The second is, in many communities, police have lost trust with the community, and they don’t want to share this video, and they don’t want to contribute to an enhancement of police power, so there could be pushback there. And I think it’s just an extra step that will limit the ease and efficiency of what had been the old system of obtaining videos for investigation.
Scott: Now, privacy advocates say this is an improvement, but police shouldn’t have these relationships with Ring at all. What is the argument against these partnerships?
Ferguson: Well, the initial argument against the Ring-police partnerships is that it was done in a very — I wouldn’t say underhanded, but sort of [in an] underhanded way, where they were giving promotional discounts to buy this particular camera. It was an odd mixing of public safety and private commerce. And it sort of was making people question Amazon’s intention to start selling surveillance as a service with the government behind them. And that is a different world than we’ve lived in, so people were very concerned about this growing public-private partnership around systems of surveillance.
Scott: Google also has cameras. Google’s Nest uses outdoor and indoor security cameras, but it doesn’t have this kind of relationship with the police. Why is Amazon — I mean, what’s the business reason to do this, do you think?
Ferguson: I think it is a way to legitimize why you should buy a particular kind of camera. This sort of has the implicit suggestion that police support Amazon cameras as opposed to Google cameras or anywhere else. It’s not directly stated, but there is a sense that the thumbs are on the scale of one particular vendor over another. And that just feels wrong.
Scott: How do you think the widespread adoption of these cameras has affected neighborhoods? I remember living in a Denver neighborhood where I was constantly seeing photos and videos posted online of package thieves, which made me think they were pretty widely adopted by my neighbors.
Ferguson: I think it is growing. I mean, those 2,000 partnerships mean a lot of individuals using these cameras. We are basically constructing our own networks of self-surveillance. There’s obviously racial and racist uses of these technologies and concerns that they are sort of being weaponized to police the areas. It feels like it would change the character of a neighborhood, and probably not in a good way.
Related links: More insight from Amy Scott
A Ring spokesperson said public safety agencies use the app to connect with local communities in a variety ways, from posting information about missing persons and hurricane evacuation orders to engaging directly with residents.
The Washington Post had a recent story about how home surveillance can work against law enforcement. Earlier this year, two FBI agents in South Florida were killed while serving a warrant when the suspect saw them approaching on his home security camera and shot them. That same story says Amazon has been adding partnerships with police and fire departments at a pace of two a day — from just 60 in 2018 to, as I said, more than 2,000 today. There’s also a map where you can check whether agencies in your community work with Ring.
Meanwhile, also in The Washington Post, it’s not just Amazon’s video police are interested in. The company had been selling facial recognition software to police departments until last year, when the widespread protests over racial injustice led the company to temporarily ban police use of the technology. Last month, Amazon extended that ban until further notice. The software, called Rekognition, allowed police to upload images of potential suspects and search a database of mug shots and other photos for matches. Researchers found the software was prone to making false matches, especially with people of color. Three Black men have sued police departments for false arrests stemming from facial recognition software. IBM and Microsoft also stopped selling their facial recognition technology to police last year.
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