A Smart Doorbell Company Is Working With Cops to Report ‘Suspicious’ People and Activities

Ring claims its new app Neighbors will fight crime, but it could also become a platform for profiling and discrimination.

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May 8 2018, 8:51pm

Image: Shutterstock

Smart doorbell company Ring is making it easier for customers to call the cops on “suspicious” people and activities.

The startup, which Amazon acquired for reportedly “more than” $1 billion this year, uses security cameras to let people monitor their entryways. Now, it’s launching its Neighbors app—a platform for reporting crime that, so far, police in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, and the Ventura Sheriff’s Department, have access to. “Over the next days and weeks, law enforcement across the US will be joining Neighbors,” a Ring spokesperson told me over email.

The app, while presented as a crime-fighting aid, could also be a new place for paranoid people to profile fellow citizens, as similar platforms in the past have turned out to be. According to the company’s statement in a press release for Neighbors today:

In addition to receiving push notifications about potential security issues, app users can see recent crime and safety posts uploaded by their neighbors, the Ring team and local law enforcement via an interactive map. If a neighbor notices suspicious activity in their area, they can post their own text, photo or video and alert the community to proactively prevent crime.

Ring customers can already share footage from their doorbell cameras—with police, with friends, and most anywhere online. A company blog post, for example, lists “The 8 Scariest Videos Caught by Ring,” and user-submitted footage (or “Customer Stories”) is heavily promoted on Ring’s website. The company even provides a how-to guide for downloading and sharing videos across social media.

“A lot of our customer videos are of nice family moments, a curious animal or maybe a stranger on someone’s porch,” the blog post said. “But every now and then, we get videos that are downright scary.”

The Neighbors app lets people notify other users about alleged crime in their area. Users can post footage of prowlers afoot (the stock “suspicious man” on Ring’s website is a guy in a hoodie), and alert people to their whereabouts. Additionally, law enforcement can put out requests for information, but must have a case number when doing so. Law enforcement won’t have direct access to people’s devices, videos, or data, Ring’s spokesperson told me.

Screenshot: Ring
Screenshot: Ring

“Law enforcement can view the publicly available content in the Neighbors app and request content from Neighbors in a certain area, date range and time frame where an incident may have occurred,” a Ring spokesperson told me over email.

Ring seems to believe that it’s a force for good. “At Ring, we come to work every day with the mission of reducing crime in neighborhoods,” Ring founder Jamie Siminoff said in a press statement. But ill-conceived neighborhood-watch platforms can also be breeding grounds for racial profiling, giving people safe (and poorly moderated) spaces to discriminate. On the website for Nextdoor, an app that works similarly to Neighbors—which notoriously saw users profiling minorities, and also partnered with law enforcement—I’ve witnessed my own neighbors trying to evict someone for simply looking weird.

That’s not to say that real crime doesn’t get reported on such apps. A 2015 partnership between Ring and the Los Angeles Police Department allegedly helped to decrease burglary rates in select neighborhoods.

But snoops, racists, and generally shitty people are also empowered by home security tech, especially one that promises access to the cops. And, if you’re a minority, the reality is that merely ringing someone’s doorbell can be life-threatening.