When San Diego police tried to gain access to public and private cameras already installed around the city in 2010, officials said they wanted a better way to collect evidence and deter crime. The idea fell apart because the video feeds were relying on software that was incompatible with the department’s operating system.
The technology, in other words, just wasn’t there yet.
It is now. But this time, SDPD isn’t the first in line.
At least five police agencies in San Diego County are partnering with a tech company owned by Amazon to gain access to a growing network of residential and business cameras voluntarily installed by property owners and tenants. The program is meant to reduce crime, particularly package thefts, and it benefits not only law enforcement but one of the world’s largest corporations — raising questions about the proper relationship between tech and police in an era of “smart technology.”
Amazon bought Ring, a doorbell surveillance company, for $1 billion in 2018 and has been marketing its devices to local police departments ever since. Citizens can post text and video footage to an app called Neighbors, which is owned by Ring. The app is free and includes user-uploaded footage from other smart doorbells on the market, such as Skybell or Google’s Nest, but if Ring users want to store their footage and access additional services, they must pay a monthly subscription fee.
The Chula Vista Police Department became the latest to sign an agreement with Ring in May after a company salesman pursued city officials. Emails obtained by Voice of San Diego show that Sgt. Frank Giaime signaled strong support for the devices last December as part of the department’s long-term goal to create “a real time crime center,” he wrote to Raymond Pollum, Ring’s head of law enforcement partnerships. One of the ways to do that, he explained, “would be leveraging civilian surveillance cameras in the city to aid us in solving crime and learning about crime patterns.”
Two months later, Pollum used prior agreements with law enforcement agencies in San Diego County to speed up a deal with Chula Vista.
“Not sure if peer pressure is a good thing or not,” Pollum wrote to Sharyl Mesina, CVPD’s public safety analyst, on Feb. 5, one day after La Mesa had signed an agreement with the company, “but wanted to at least make you aware that they are joining the program and will be onboarded shortly.”
Two weeks after that, he sent a similar message to say the San Diego sheriff was also on board — in addition to Carlsbad and Oceanside, which signed up last year.
“Anxious to get CVPD onboard as we work to make San Diego (in general) and Chula Vista (specifically) a safer community,” he wrote.
Many users around San Diego purchased their doorbell cameras before the partnerships with area police departments went into effect. In some cases, though, the doorbells have gone from the company and into the hands of homeowners, free of charge, through local police departments. La Mesa, for instance, found residents willing to install the cameras as part of a social media contest.
Police agencies portray these partnerships as a win-win for residents because they don’t rely on taxpayer money and because homeowners are voluntarily participating. Residents alone are responsible for the subscription fees.
Still, it’s been rolled out without the wider knowledge and consent of the public. Police departments don’t necessarily need permission from elected leaders to go ahead with these types of arrangements, so they’re not coming up for a vote at the city council level or at the County Board of Supervisors.
And as a private company, Ring doesn’t have to disclose information about its handling and use of the data in the same way that a government agency might. When pitching public officials on a partnership, Ring likes to say its products have reduced burglaries in one Los Angeles neighborhood by 55 percent. But the company has declined to release the details of its analysis, making its claims difficult to fact check.
Det. John McKean of the Oceanside Police Department said his city has given away some devices to victims of porch thefts in exchange for “peace of mind.”
He also argued that the devices negate any privacy concerns because the footage is being shared by people who want to help solve crimes on their own properties and said all users know what services they are agreeing to up front.
“We have no live feed,” McKean said. “There’s nothing secret. There’s no privacy issues whatsoever. We can’t view it unless they post it publicly.”
Tech experts are more cautious. Users can agree to one set of terms and conditions and have an unrecognizable product a year later as adjustments are made quietly and buried in the details of the text.
Dave Maass, a researcher with the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that while doorbell cameras are advertised as just another tool of public safety, these technologies end up serving the financial interests of a major corporation.
“Ultimately what we’re talking about is a private company coming in and creating a surveillance infrastructure,” Maass said. “Then the community is reliant for the company to upkeep it, and its policies needs to actually meet the community’s needs. So the company, the actual motivation for them is profit. What they’re going to try and do is maximize money.”
Maass said officials should also take more seriously the threat of spying and data breaches. His concerns are not without merit. Other surveillance technology has proven vulnerable on numerous occasions. Just last month, the Customs and Border Protection’s database was breached by hackers and roughly 100,000 photos of travelers and license plates were accessed.
Amazon has also taken a good amount of flack in the last year for meeting with federal authorities about possibly selling facial recognition technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The FBI has used Amazon’s “Rekognition” since 2018. The ACLU has advocated against its use, saying facial recognition leads to tracking activists, immigrants and other vulnerable demographics. One study showed that facial recognition technology more accurately identifies white males, meaning women and people of color are more susceptible to false arrest.
Ring does not come with facial recognition software, but it could in the near future. Late last year, Amazon filed a patent for technology capable of identifying faces through doorbell devices. The application notes that if someone is not authorized to be on site, the device will generate an alert and upload the image to a database of “suspicious persons.” The inventor listed on the application was James Siminoff, the CEO of Ring.
So far, the big local holdout on Ring is SDPD — the same agency that was so eager in 2010 to tap into the region’s private camera infrastructure. Lt. Jeffrey Jordon said that while officers have been advocating for a partnership with Ring, he wants to wait and solicit feedback from other departments.
“I think Ring, as well as technological applications similar to it, have great potential to positively impact crime,” Jordon said. “But I’m watching how their current relationships with law enforcement agencies and communities evolve before I evaluate if they are a good fit for the department.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the fee Ring charges to customers. It charges a monthly subscription fee to customers who wish to store footage and access other services.