NEW YORK — The New York Police Department, which already relies on a high-tech toolbox that includes facial recognition software, drones and mobile X-ray vans, has joined Neighbors, a public neighborhood watch platform owned by Amazon’s Ring where video doorbell owners can post clips, and where precincts can enlist the help of the city’s residents in their investigations.
In announcing the collaboration with Ring, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said in a statement that “the ability to interact online with New Yorkers — often in real time — adds to the comprehensive crime-fighting strategies already employed by the NYPD.”
But the vast growth of the initiative — over 2,000 of the nation’s public safety agencies have signed on, including in Los Angeles and Chicago — has alarmed digital rights and privacy activists who say that the platform could lead to over surveillance by police, a burden historically borne by people of color.
In New York, home to the nation’s largest and most digitally sophisticated police force, the venture represents a dramatic expansion of the police’s surveillance apparatus. Here’s what to know about the partnership, and some of the main questions and concerns.
What can the police see — and hear?
The Neighbors mobile app, which was previously available only to Ring owners but became freely accessible to the public in 2018, allows users to post and chat anonymously on its platform. The feeds consist largely of video clips of stolen packages and property damage captured by Ring cameras, with alerts about robberies, fires and crime from the Ring “news team” woven in between.
Since Nov. 2, the city’s 77 precincts have been able to peruse these public feeds and neighbor-to-neighbor conversations, and solicit footage and tips. The police do not, however, have the ability to view or tap into Ring cameras as they record in real-time.
Law enforcement posts, which are labeled “requests for assistance,” must be related to a specific investigation and are reviewed by a Ring moderator for compliance before they appear on the app.
A few of the city’s precincts have already begun using Neighbors. The 83rd precinct has put up two requests for assistance asking for information on an attempted robbery Nov. 14 and an e-bike theft reported Nov. 9. The 77th precinct has placed one request so far, seeking tips for an assault that occurred Nov. 10.
Users can ignore or even block these inquiries from their feed. But police can still obtain private footage through a court order or directly through Ring. Such requests to the company are for life-threatening emergencies and are regularly denied, a Ring spokesperson, Mai Nguyen, said.
Ring has provided footage to law enforcement in at least 11 instances through July of this year, according to Amazon.
With over 10 million Ring cameras sold, the ubiquity of the device has alarmed digital privacy groups and officials, who say millions of Americans are being recorded daily without their knowledge.
Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said the ability of police to view posts, even if they’re public, was “disconcerting” because members can no longer use the platform as a way to avoid involving police.
Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts said he was “troubled” by Ring’s “invasive data collection and problematic engagement with police departments” in a letter he sent to Ring in June, flagging the device’s ability to record audible conversations as far as 20 feet away. The doorbell’s sensors can scan up to 25 feet, according to the company’s website.
“The public’s right to assemble, move and converse without being tracked is at risk,” Markey warned in the letter, demanding that Amazon remove Ring’s ability to record audio.
In a response to the senator the following month, Amazon declined to deactivate sound recordings on Ring doorbells.
How will police use the data it gathers?
Police have long asked for the public’s help in identifying suspects caught on surveillance cameras for cases they’re investigating — from property crime, to assaults, to homicides — often publicizing videos and photos of suspects through social media posts and news releases. A Police Department spokesperson said the platform would serve as an extension of the agency’s existing tip gathering methods.
The images and footage that police gather through Neighbors could then be run through facial recognition software, which it has used since 2011 to track down suspects.
But the use of facial recognition software has been controversial. Studies have found the technology to be inaccurate, especially when identifying women of color. And it is possible that those erroneous matches could then be shared with other agencies, such as immigration enforcement.
And even as civil liberties groups have sued over the constitutionality of technology like facial recognition, that other cities have banned for use by law enforcement, Mayor Eric Adams has hinted at expanding the program.
Has Ring’s law enforcement partnership had an effect on crime?
A number of experts have argued that the program has little effect on decreasing crime.
In 2015, Ring piloted a partnership program with the Los Angeles Police Department to distribute free devices to residents in Wilshire Park, claiming at the end of the six-month experiment that there was a 55% reduction in crime in the neighborhood.
But an analysis by MIT Technology Review in 2018 said that Ring’s methodology was flawed. Using public data to conduct its own analysis, The Review was unable to corroborate Ring’s claim; instead, it found that burglaries in Wilshire Park had risen over the course of the 2015 pilot program, and were higher in 2017 than in the seven preceding years. An NBC News investigation in 2020 of 40 police departments across eight states that had partnered with Ring also found little evidence of a decrease in crime.
Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor who studies policing and crime, said he doesn’t believe the collaboration between Ring and police would make neighborhoods safer, instead warning, “I think it creates the potential for misidentification, and that’s a problem.”
What concerns have activists raised about racial profiling and police surveillance?
Three years ago, Vice news spent two months tracking the content of the app within a 5-mile area covering lower Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and parts of Queens and Hoboken, New Jersey, and found that people of color made up the majority of posts tagged as “suspicious activity.”
It echoed a pattern of concerning behavior that had plagued other neighborhood watch platforms, like Nextdoor and Citizen, which civil liberty groups had warned could give a false impression of rising crime and lead to racial profiling and wrongful arrests.
“The NYPD is effectively deputizing app users,” Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said about Neighbors. “Crowdsourced surveillance and suspicion, like the kind that takes place on Ring’s Neighbors app, is influenced by users’ racial biases and other prejudices.”
The city Police Department, which developed one of the country’s most sophisticated surveillance apparatuses after 9/11, has a well-documented history of surveilling minority communities.
In 2018, the Police Department settled a lawsuit over the surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey through a decadelong spying program in which officers eavesdropped on conversations in cafes and designated mosques as potential terrorist organizations. According to the suit, police officers collected license plates and took video and photographs at mosques as part of their covert surveillance.
And in a 2021 report, Amnesty International detailed the police’s capacity to view footage from over 15,000 CCTV cameras installed across the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn alone, with a disproportionate number of those cameras located in communities of color.
The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy and civil rights group based in New York, has condemned the police’s partnership with Neighbors.
“This sort of crowdsourced surveillance will only lead to more wrongful arrests, racial profiling and police violence,” Albert Fox Cahn, the organization’s executive director, said in a press statement. “Most New Yorkers would second guess installing these home surveillance tools if they understood how easily these systems could be used against them and their families by police.”
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