Local Law Enforcement, Ring Try to Quell Security Camera User Privacy Concerns

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Composite / Nest - Scott Ball

The popular Ring doorbell camera company has partnered with law enforcement agencies across the country, including the San Antonio Police Department.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and San Antonio Police Department both have partnered with Amazon-owned security company Ring to request video footage from Ring device users to aid in active investigations.

Law enforcement officials can connect with Ring users through the Neighbors app. SAPD started its partnership with Ring in May, but has not taken advantage of the relationship much since then because officers are much more inclined to use the social networking site Nextdoor, a spokesperson with the department said.

“Neighbors is such a new app, and the Ring portal is such a new resource that we haven’t used it as much as Nextdoor,” public information officer Michelle Ramos said.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Ring revealed more than 400 law enforcement agencies around the country use its Neighbors Portal. The portal allows agencies to connect with users directly on the Neighbors app by posting crime and safety updates in users’ neighborhoods.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office partnered with Ring and has a presence on the Neighbors app. It was the first law enforcement agency in the county to do so, according to spokesman Johnny Garcia. The Hays County Sheriff’s Office in San Marcos and Austin Police Department also partner with Ring. More than 50 agencies in Texas are included on the Ring website.

Neighbors general manager Eric Kuhn told the Washington Post the mission was to make neighborhoods safer.

“We’ve had a lot of success in terms of deterring crime and solving crimes that would otherwise not be solved as quickly,” he told the newspaper.

The Neighbors app has a portal that allows law enforcement agencies to ask for video footage from Ring customers to help in active investigations by submitting a request to Ring, which Ring then relays to the customer.

Ring users are under no obligation to provide the footage to police, Ramos stressed; sharing video footage with law enforcement is optional. According to Ring’s support page, users can ignore requests for footage. Law enforcement is never given access to cameras or other Ring devices, according to the company’s frequently asked questions page.

A least one detective in SAPD has filed a known request with Ring for footage, but overall, the police department does not track how many requests it sends to the security camera company, Ramos said.

Ramos noted that Ring devices are one of an array of resources law enforcement uses while investigating cases. Detectives also ask homeowners if they are willing to share relevant surveillance video from other recording equipment.

“When you have a hot case that comes in, homicide detectives respond to the scene and canvass the area,” she said. “We contact witnesses. If there’s a murder on the street, we go door-to-door. And we look to see if there’s any surveillance video – not necessarily just the Ring app.”

Ring device owner and IT manager Carsten Griffin said he thinks Ring’s eagerness to work with law enforcement agencies is a “sales tool,” to show the product’s effectiveness. 

“What’s the incentive for the police department if they’re not getting something on the back side?” Griffin asked.

Griffin said after learning about Ring’s partnership with law enforcement agencies, he plans to use another company’s product. 

“It’s oddly big brother-ish by nature of a contract,” Griffin said, “I would prefer if, like, law enforcement had an area where you could register your camera so if something happened they could ask me to check. That would be more useful than using law enforcement as a sales tool.”

Griffin added he was apprehensive of potential misuse of Ring devices. He pointed to a clause in its terms of service agreement that gives the company access to Ring recordings:

“In addition to the rights granted above, you also acknowledge and agree that Ring may access, use, preserve and/or disclose your User Recordings and Shared Content to law enforcement authorities, government officials, and/or third parties, if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief that such access, use, preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to:

(a) comply with applicable law, regulation, legal process or reasonable governmental request; (b) enforce these Terms, including investigation of any potential violation thereof; (c) detect, prevent or otherwise address security, fraud or technical issues; or (d) protect the rights, property or safety of Ring, its users, a third party, or the public as required or permitted by law.”

Ramos said that the police department always asks for permission to see video footage. The department cannot pull up a Ring device’s recordings, she said.

“I want to make clear we do not have access to their cameras,” Ramos said. “They would voluntarily have to turn over video surveillance if we requested it. If they say no, it’s no.”

Despite privacy assurances from law enforcement and Ring, Griffin remained skeptical.

“I’ve seen too many cases of technology companies with data do something they’re not supposed to do,” Griffin said.

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