We recently celebrated the decision by Amazon to require police to present a warrant before going through the “Request for Assistance” tool to seek video footage from the neighborhood networks of Ring cameras owners. We touted this is as a significant victory for privacy.
And it is – it effectively neutralized more than 2,300 agreements Amazon had with local police and fire departments to help them obtain private security footage – but it wasn’t quite as big a deal as we first thought. Thanks to reporting from Baylee Bates of KCEN News in Temple, Texas, Amazon’s change is prompting a big yawn from police.
Why? A spokeswoman for the Temple Police Department told Bates that officers had found greater success in requests for video footage by making door-to-door contacts. “We have found throughout the years of gathering the security footage that going to residents, business owners, that face-to-face interaction with people has been way more successful for us,” said Megan Price of the Temple PD.
A spokesman for the Bell County Sheriff’s Department told Bates that Amazon’s policy change “doesn’t stop us from going individual-to-individual and talking, the way we prefer to do it anyway.”
Since the introduction of Ring, customers have for the most part complied with police requests for videos. If someone set fire to a car in our neighborhood, or burgled a house across the street, we would do the same. But the eagerness of most people to grant police access to surveillance video is concerning, as more neighborhoods become “ringed” with surveillance.
Three years ago, a Washington Post story quoted a mother in California telling her seven-year-old son, “Every time you ride your bike down this block, there are probably 50 cameras that watch you going past. If you make a bad choice, those cameras will catch you.”
We wrote at the time that George Orwell never imagined millions of Ring cameras – and millions of users willing to hand over video when asked. The threat to privacy from neighborhood surveillance is as much about audio recordings as it is video.
Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) assessed the risk of a surveillance network in every neighborhood in a letter to Amazon in 2022: “This surveillance system threatens the public in ways that go far beyond abstract privacy invasion: individuals may use Ring devices’ audio recordings to facilitate blackmail, stalking, and other damaging practices. As Ring products capture significant amounts of audio on private and public property adjacent to dwellings with Ring doorbells – including recordings of conversations that people reasonably expect to be private – the public’s right to assemble, move, and converse without being tracked is at risk.”
At least you can always step inside, away from the microphones and the cameras, settle into your chair, and let Alexa take over your surveillance.