By George Landrith, President, Frontiers of Freedom
More than 675 police forces across the nation have formed a partnership with Ring — the company that makes the now popular doorbell surveillance system. Ring is owned by Amazon and these police partnerships give the police the ability to quickly request and download video recorded by the Ring doorbell camera on your front door or even the camera in your home. Some argue this is a huge help to law enforcement, but it also creates an end-run or loophole around the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches.
Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has sounded the alarm that Ring has failed to enact basic safeguards to protect the privacy of their customers. “Connected doorbells are well on their way to becoming a mainstay of American households, and the lack of privacy and civil rights protections for innocent residents is nothing short of chilling,” Senator Markey said.
Normally, if the police believe that your camera may have evidence that is needed to crack an important criminal case, they would obtain a warrant from a judge who determines if the police are legally entitled to the video footage based on if certain constitutional requirements are met. That process involves an impartial judge determining if the police have probable cause and a careful balancing of privacy interests versus law enforcement interests.
Additionally, the police could request the voluntary cooperation of an owner of a camera. But even here there are significant problems. Up until only a few months ago, Ring provided police with a map showing where its customers and their cameras were located with surprising specificity. This shows a remarkably cavalier attitude about customer privacy. Since both Amazon and Ring promise their customers anonymity, this was a remarkable breach of that promise.
You or you children can be videoed walking your dog or playing ball in the yard and someone claiming to work for the police could ask for the video, claiming that it is needed for an investigation. But there is no protection against it being a department employee who is curious or even has some reason to harass you or your family or your neighbors. There is no impartial judge weighing the facts or probing the motivations of the requester. And Ring now admits that once the police have downloaded the video they can keep it for as long as they like and do with it whatever they like including sharing it with third parties — that could be their friends.
Some might say, “well, if you’ve done nothing wrong, what do you have to worry about?” Actually, the answer might surprise you. You may have a jealous former spouse or significant other that works at the police department. What if an unreasonable neighbor harbors ill will towards you and happens to work at the department? There is no real check or balance to be sure that your constitutional rights have been protected and there is no check or balance to be sure that there is a legitimate law enforcement need for video containing your images. These cameras capture imagines of neighborhood children walking to school and playing, neighbors walking their dog, even neighbors across the street in their own yard.
All of this is being done without Ring giving you any clear warning that by buying and installing the doorbell camera or other security devices that you are effectively giving up your constitutional rights and waving your privacy protections as provided in the Constitution. Obviously, people can waive their rights if they want to, but since they are not being told about these backdoor deals or the surveillance network that is being built, they are not knowingly waiving anything. Their rights are simply being taken from them.
Some might even argue that if the police request to download your doorbell video, you can simply say no. But how many citizens know that? And how many would say yes simply because they don’t want to be on local law enforcement’s “naughty list” of uncooperative people? And if your neighbor’s camera catches your family playing in the front yard, how do you protect your privacy? There is a reason why the Constitution sets up certain due process standards and it should give us all pause when technology combined with private-public partnerships are used to undermine those standards and protections.
Ring currently gets around these issues by claiming that their users own the video and that they are supposed to protect their neighbors privacy. Meanwhile Ring makes sweetheart deals with local police departments to provide and build a web of discounted surveillance cameras all across the country. We used to worry that government might make us become a surveillance police state. Now it is a private company stepping in to do the same.
To make matters even more invasive, Ring is contemplating adding facial-recognition capabilities to its cameras. Given that Ring has done little to protect constitutional safeguards or privacy to date, there is no reason to believe that facial-recognition capabilities would be managed anymore carefully or thoughtfully.
Innocent Americans have an interest in privacy. Most Americans want to live their lives without unwanted attention. Ring is making the idea of privacy increasingly difficult and it appears to be part of their business model — not an innocent mistake.
George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom, a public policy think tank devoted to promoting a strong national defense, free markets, individual liberty, and constitutionally limited government.