Police in Mississippi are testing a program in which they can livestream video footage from private security cameras – including Ring doorbell cameras – installed at private homes and businesses.
The program in Jackson, Miss., to use the Ring door cameras as part of surveillance efforts, is being touted as a new way to help police fight rising crime, according to a report in the Jackson Free Press. However, the move is also sounding an alarm bell with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other privacy advocates who worry of surveillance issues.
Police have partnered with two technology companies – Jackson-based tech consulting company PILEUM and Georgia-based cloud services provider Fusus – to allow law enforcement to access private camera surveillance of residents or businesses who agreed to participate in the 45-day program. If private participants allow, the city now has permission to access those cameras through the platform, and could use the data collected to track criminal activity.
The ACLU, however, called the launch of the program its “worst fears” being “confirmed,” in a Tuesday blog post by ACLU policy analyst Matthew Guariglia. The privacy watchdog group has long worried that using Amazon-owned Ring cameras for police surveillance is disastrous for people’s privacy and an overreach of authority by local law enforcement.
However, a Ring spokesperson told Threatpost, “this is not a Ring program and Ring is not working with any of the companies or the city in connection with this program.”
Even though the camera owners agree to participate in the program, cameras such as Ring often capture footage of people in the vicinity also going about their daily business, people who likely did not agree to have their moves surveilled by law enforcement, Guariglia wrote.
“The footage from your front door includes you coming and going from your house, your neighbors taking out the trash, and the dog walkers and delivery people who do their jobs in your street,” according to the post. “In Jackson, this footage can now be live streamed directly onto a dozen monitors scrutinized by police around the clock. Even if you refuse to allow your footage to be used that way, your neighbor’s camera pointed at your house may still be transmitting directly to the police.”
Moreover, the use of residents’ personal Ring cameras is a sneaky way for police to build a CCTV surveillance network in neighborhoods without having to invest financially or build trust in the community in terms of transparency.
“It allows police departments to avoid the cost of buying surveillance equipment and to put that burden onto consumers by convincing them they need cameras to keep their property safe,” Guariglia wrote. “Second, it evades the natural reaction of fear and distrust that many people would have if they learned police were putting up dozens of cameras on their block, one for every house.”
The Jackson pilot program comes slightly more than a year after Amazon-owned Ring announced that it was starting a “new neighborhood watch” effort to allow homeowners to provide voluntary access to camera footage to officers. In the event of an incident, police could request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras for a specific geographic area and time range–but homeowners can decline the requests. To date, Ring has partnered with more than 1,000 police departments across the country.
These partnerships already spurred criticism from more than 30 privacy and consumer advocacy groups, including the ACLU, who urged local legislators to intervene in doorbell-camera company Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement.
Now that this move has gone a step further into active, 24-hour-a-day surveillance in Jackson, the ACLU is urging city officials to push back against the overreach of law enforcement, citing the city’s move a few months ago to become the first in the southern United States to ban police use of face recognition technology.
“If police want to build a surveillance camera network, they should only do so in ways that are transparent and accountable, and ensure active resident participation in the process,” Guariglia wrote. “If residents say no to spy cameras, then police must not deploy them.”
Since its inception, Amazon-owned Ring has come under fire for flaws in the system that could allow video and data collected by the system to be used by threat actors, as well as its own dodgy data-collection practices. Last year, Amazon patched a vulnerability in the smart doorbell that could have allowed attackers to access the owner’s Wi-Fi network credentials and potentially reconfigure the device to launch an attack on the home network.
A couple of days later, five U.S. Senators demanded in a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that Amazon disclose how it’s securing Ring home-security device footage–and who is allowed to access that footage.
Just last month, Ring raised privacy hackles again when it unveiled the new Always Home Cam, a smart home security camera drone that flies around homes taking security footage of people inside their own homes. Due to Amazon’s already questionable data-collection practices, privacy advocates worry that the footage could fall into the wrong hands.
This article was updated on Nov. 4 at 11 AM to add a statement from Ring and to clarify that the program extends to all private security cameras – not exclusively Ring devices.
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