In February, the Dunwoody Police Department sent out an upbeat press release announcing it was the first in Georgia to team up with doorbell-camera company Ring to access the company’s Neighbors app. The partnership, the department boasted, could help the department crack down on package thieves, stop burglaries and keep neighborhoods safe.
“Leveraging today’s technology to help keep our citizens safe is a key focus of our department,” Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan said in the release. “Our partnership with Ring and use of the Neighbors app will definitely help in our crime fighting efforts.”
The Brookhaven Police Department followed up a month later with its own press release announcing its alliance with Ring.
“Partnering with Ring using the Neighbors app will give officers a technological advantage when investigating crimes,” Brookhaven Police Chief Gary Yandura said in the release.
Dunwoody and Brookhaven are just two of 10 law enforcement agencies in Georgia to team up with Ring, owned by corporate giant Amazon. Across the nation, more than 400 law enforcement agencies have signed on with Ring to gain free access to surveillance video shared by customers to Ring’s public social network, named “Neighbors.” Through the partnership, law enforcement agencies gain access to the Neighborhood Portal which includes a map of where Ring cameras are located.
Other Georgia law enforcement agencies partnering with Ring including police departments and sheriff’s offices in Chamblee, Cobb County, Duluth, Forsyth County, Garden City, Gwinnett County, Sandy Springs and the Savannah Police Department.
“This partnership is another way for us to engage the community and share information in a timely manner,” Sandy Springs Deputy Chief of Police Keith Zgonc said in an email. The department teamed up with Ring in April.
For some, the rising number of police partnering with Ring is chilling. They say Ring is creating a nationwide surveillance network that raises serious concerns about privacy and the blurring of police departments with corporations.
“Constant surveillance may sound safe for people who have nothing to fear from a biased criminal justice system, but making the decision to extend Amazon and police surveillance to your home is a potential hazard for people who live and work in your community,” said Matthew Gauriglia, policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF is an international nonprofit organization “defending civil liberties in the digital world,” according to its website.
Ring says its partnerships with law enforcement are just another way to keep communities safer by allowing police and residents to share crime and safety information through the Neighbors app.
“We are proud to work with law enforcement agencies across the country and have taken care to design these programs in a way that keeps users in control,” a spokesperson said in a written statement.
The partnerships claim to ensure anonymity to Ring users by requiring police to make a request to the company for footage they saw on the Neighbors app they want for an investigation. Ring then contacts the homeowner to make the actual request.
“With each request, customers decide whether to share all relevant videos, review and select certain videos to share, take no action (decline), or opt out of all future requests,” Ring says in a FAQ on its website.
Grogan also discounted privacy concerns, saying police are only looking for surveillance footage someone has voluntarily posted to the Neighbors app.
“I understand to some degree some concerns about ‘Big Brother,’ but you also have to understand that none of us have the resources or time to really look at video just randomly just see what people are doing,” Grogan said.
“We have specific purposes, to investigate crimes … other than that we are not looking at video,” he said. “We have no direct access to anything. It’s all voluntary. Nobody has to share anything with us.”
EFF says it’s not as black-and-white as Ring says when it comes to giving their customers the choice to not share video footage with police. Ring acknowledged in a story in Government Technology that if a resident does not want to share their footage, the company will still turn it over if a law enforcement agency has a “valid and binding legal demand.”
Yandura did not say his department has made demands for Ring footage, but said when customers post to the Neighbors app, it essentially becomes part of the public domain.
“Once someone publishes to the app, it’s out there,” Yandura said.
How Ring and the Neighbors app work
Residents can download the free Neighbors app and use it to monitor neighborhood activity, share crime and safety-related videos, photos and text-based posts; and receive real-time safety alerts from their neighbors, local law enforcement and the Ring team, according to a Ring press release.
Ring users are alerted when their doorbell-cameras detect motion from as far away as 30 feet; when someone presses the video-doorbell button; or when the user turns on a “Live View” option through the Ring app.
Those events begin recording a video file that is streamed from the Ring device to the cloud on Amazon Web Services servers, according to the company’s privacy notice.
Those who subscribe for $3 a month to Ring Protect Plans can have their videos stored on the cloud for 60 days to watch them later. Those without a plan will have their videos automatically deleted, according to Ring’s privacy notice.
Ring’s terms of service says the company and its licensees have permanent and wide-ranging rights to keep and use the footage from the cameras, including: “an unlimited, irrevocable, fully paid and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right to re-use, distribute, store, delete, translate, copy, modify, display, sell, create derivative works from and otherwise exploit such shared content for any purpose and in any media formats in any media channels without compensation.”
This kind of corporate control of homeowner’s video surveillance contributes to what EFF calls a “perfect storm of privacy threats.”
“Having a Ring camera may seem like a harmless way to protect your packages, but it is helping to create a large surveillance network within your own community that does more than just thwart the work of criminals,” Gauriglia said.
When Ring customers continually post footage to the Neighbors app resulting in constant alerts sent to users, fear is generated in communities, EFF says. That leads to more sales of Ring doorbell-cameras and other security devices, adding to an already massive surveillance network, according to EFF.
“With every update, Ring turns the delivery person or census-taker innocently standing on at the door into a potential criminal,” Gauriglia reported in an Aug. 8 EFF story. “Neighborhood watch apps only increase the paranoia.”
Yandura said there is nothing threatening about the Ring cameras, saying they are like having a “cop on every corner in the city” 24 hours a day.
Grogan said Ring and the Neighbors app are simply keeping communities informed on what is happening in their neighborhoods.
“People know their neighborhoods better than anybody,” he said. “They live there and know what is unusual. … The people that participate are choosing to do that and making the decision to work with police to try to help keep their communities safe.”
How many Ring doorbell-camera users live in Dunwoody and Brookhaven is not known by the police departments, according to the chiefs, and Ring declined to comment on this question.
Yandura did say a Ring representative told him earlier this year that Brookhaven’s 30319 ZIP code had the highest concentration of Ring devices in the state.
Both cities have also invested heavily in surveillance cameras and license plate readers, or LPRs.
Earlier this year, Dunwoody spent about $189,000 to buy 16 LPRs from Georgia Power to post throughout Perimeter Center where most of the city’s crime occurs.
In 2017, Brookhaven entered into a $700,000, three-year lease agreement with Georgia Power to place 44 LPRs throughout the city. The LPRs average 4 million “reads” a month of people driving in and out of the city, Yandura said, and are used to get hits on stolen cars and wanted fugitives.
What’s included in the partnership
Grogan said the department reached out to Ring last year after reading about the company partnering with law enforcement through the Neighbors app.
Yandura said he learned about Ring and the Neighbors app at a conference for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
After the chiefs agreed their departments would team up with Ring, they were required by the company to sign memorandums of understanding, non-binding agreements that outlined roles and responsibilities. Both cities MOUs stated Ring would provide mutually agreed-upon press releases announcing the partnerships.
The agreements included Ring providing the departments a few free Ring doorbell cameras to give out to residents at community events or homeowners’ association meetings.
Last month, the Dunwoody Police Department hosted a “pizza with police” event at City Hall that included free Ring doorbell camera giveaways.
Yandura said Brookhaven Police have also handed out four free Ring cameras at community events and HOA meetings.
Emails obtained through the open records request show that Dunwoody Police Department employees were given a special promotion code, “nbdunwoody,” after the MOU was signed in February. The code gave them $50 off any purchase of the Ring Classic, Ring Pro, Ring Video Doorbell 2, Floodlight Cam, Spotlight Cam and Ring Protect.
Ring also provided a free webinar to Dunwoody officers to train them on how to use the Neighbors app portal, according to emails.
Those requested by Ring to attend online training included the public information officer, the social media coordinator, an investigative coordinator and a community relations coordinator who “oversees the team that interfaces with the community at events, HOAs, Neighborhood Watch meetings, etc.”
These kinds of agreements can weaken a police department’s standing in a community where they are supposed to be neutral, Gauriglia said
“Ring-police partnerships also undermine our trust in local police departments,” he said. “We know from reporting that almost everything police put out about Ring, from press releases to the answers to potential questions citizens may have, are scripted and approved by Amazon.”
Grogan denied Amazon or Ring had control over what his department says, including the initial press release announcing the partnership.
“We modified it and removed language we felt sounded too much like an endorsement of the Ring camera,” he said. “Other than that, they have provided no input into any other communication related to the Neighbors by Ring app.”
Yandura also denied the arrangement meant Brookhaven officers were now representing Amazon and Ring.
“No, we are not salesmen and no money is exchanged by the parties,” Yandura said. “We are not promoting one [security company] over another.”
Ring did include in its Dunwoody MOU that it would donate Ring cameras to the Dunwoody Police Department based on the number of Neighbors app downloads that result from their partnership with the city.
“Each qualifying download will count as $10 toward these free Ring cameras,” according to the Dunwoody MOU.
Grogan said his department is not obligated to Ring or Amazon.
“We don’t actively promote one system over another,” he said. “If any other camera company wants to provide free security cameras for us to give out, we will give them out as well.”