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Video Doorbell: Crime-Fighter or Big Brother?

Mount Vernon, Westchester County

Ring Police

Is that video doorbell the new Neighborhood Watch or good old Big Brother?

Sept. 4, 2019

David Amster, president of Prime Locations, manages a co-op where a shareholder recently accused his neighbor across the hall of spying on him – with a Ring doorbell, whose video camera was trained on the neighbor’s front door. 

“We had the shareholder remove the doorbell on the grounds that he shouldn’t be putting anything in a common area,” Amster says. “But the board later wanted to address the matter so it wouldn’t be an issue again. With these doorbells becoming more popular, we entered it into the house rules.”  

That bit of housekeeping, it turns out, was child’s play. 

The doorbell-camera company Ring, which is owned by Amazon, has forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them potential access to homeowners’ camera footage, the Washington Post reports. Several of those police departments are in the New York metro area, including Mount Vernon in Westchester County and North Bergen and Union City in New Jersey. 

While Ring lauds the partnerships as the nation’s “new neighborhood watch,” others see yet another opening for Big Brother. Legal experts and privacy advocates have voiced alarm about the company’s eyes-everywhere ambitions and increasingly close relationship with police, saying the program could threaten civil liberties, turn residents into informants, and subject innocent people, including those who Ring users have flagged as “suspicious,” to greater surveillance and potential risk. 

“The mission has always been making the neighborhood safer,” counters Eric Kuhn, the general manager of Neighbors, Ring’s crime-focused companion app. “We’ve had a lot of success in terms of deterring crime and solving crimes that would otherwise not be solved as quickly.” 

More double-speak, says Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor and author of The Rise of Big Data Policing. By tapping into “a perceived need for more self-surveillance and by playing on consumer fears about crime and security,” Ferguson says, Ring has found “a clever workaround for the development of a wholly new surveillance network, without the kind of scrutiny that would happen if it was coming from the police or government.”

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