The New York Police Department has added crowdsourced footage captured from the Amazon Ring video doorbell to an ever-widening array of surveillance tools, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reported.
Although the NYCLU’s warning is not news per se — referencing a November of 2022 Press Release by the force announcing that it joined Amazon’s Ring Neighbors program — the civil rights group nonetheless uses the opportunity to bring an installation of law enforcement tools that is beginning to analog the Chinese Communist Party’s social credit system into the limelight.
In its release, the NYPD stated that although it will not allocate staff to 24/7 monitoring of the app, “It will have the capacity to view, post and respond to crime- and safety-related information posted publicly by the users of the app.”
“Those posts will appear on a map and a timeline, with or without accompanying photos or video. The NYPD will also be able to proactively post notifications to the public, and to seek the public’s help with active police matters, through the app’s ‘Request for Assistance’ feature,” the Department added.
Although Amazon Ring explains on its support webpage that law enforcement is unable to commandeer individual cameras, access the owners’ library of recordings, or identify individual account owners, unless they respond to a Request for Assistance call, the NYCLU nonetheless finds the trend concerning.
And the agency’s worries lie in tales such as that of an August of 2019 article published in The Guardian, which showed that Ring had provided a Georgia police department with a live map showing the locations of hundreds of doorbells in its jurisdiction.
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Moreover, The Guardian showed an extensive practice of coercion on the part of Ring in regards to how local forces communicated on social media about the product and their use of it, using the leverage of free hardware in exchange for Ring Neighbors signups as leverage.
The usefulness for law enforcement of having a camera on the door of homes throughout every street has been evidenced for years in the media, such as that of a February of 2019 Vice article titled Amazon’s Home Security Company Is Turning Everyone Into Cops, which chronicled several instances of package thieves being arrested by the NYPD who relied on Ring surveillance footage in their investigation.
But the NYCLU cautioned the potential downside may outweigh the benefits because, “There is also reason to believe the people most impacted by this invasive new tool will be people of color.”
And this point was encapsulated in Vice’s article, which also stated, “Beyond creating a ‘new neighborhood watch,’ Amazon and Ring are normalizing the use of video surveillance and pitting neighbors against each other.”
In an investigation, Vice used its Williamsburg, Brooklyn offices as its home address on Neighbors and set the app’s radius to within 5 miles, which they state covered “all of lower Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and parts of Queens and Hoboken.”
In one instance the outlet documented, 6 colored youths were filmed by a Ring camera mounted to an apartment door heading up the stairs of a building.
The footage was posted to Neighbors under the title “6 gang members going to the roof,” claiming they were going to smoke crack, asking other amateur deputies to call the NYPD if seen again.
Vice says that Amazon removed the footage from the app after being questioned about it.
And yet for better or for worse, the network of Ring surveillance has played a positive role in catching genuinely dangerous criminals.
A Jan. 12 article published by The Morning Call explained that Drew Rose, convicted and sentenced to life in 2021 for a double homicide of a 97-year-old Pennsylvania woman and her son, plus an arson intended to cover his tracks, was busted exactly because of the burgeoning surveillance panopticon.
Northampton County District Attorney Terry Houck told the outlet, “We had his whole route tracked from his residence to the scene and back from the scene to his residence.”
“We used Ring , highway cameras, ATM machines, cameras outside stores,” Houck added.
The NYCLU’s greatest concern, however, appeared to be its claim that once the NYPD uses Neighbors to obtain Ring surveillance footage, the Department has the ability to run it through their extensive facial recognition system.
New York City’s facial recognition system is immense enough that in June of 2021, Amnesty International sounded the alarm after counting more than 15,000 proprietary cameras mounted in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx alone.
“Combined, the three boroughs account for almost half of the intersections (47%) in New York City, constituting a vast surface area of pervasive surveillance,” the article read.
Amnesty claimed that the NYPD gathers the images collected through the network before processing it through its facial recognition technology, which “works by comparing camera imagery with millions of faces stored in its databases, many scraped from sources including social media without users’ knowledge or consent.”
The cameras were so powerful, Amnesty stated, that they calculated the Department is able to gather faces from as far as two blocks away.
New York’s system bears a significant likeness to Chinese Communist Party social credit surveillance tools, such as the Sharp Eyes network, exposed via documents leaked to the Dajiyuan Chinese newspaper in 2019 evidencing the extent of the regime’s willingness to control every aspect of citizens’ lives.
Dajiyuan stated that the leaks showed instructions issued by main branches of the government that used heavy Communist Party and Marxist jargon to order local officials to install the “three defenses.”
The regime further sought ubiquitous coverage “near province- and city-level highways; district-level roads; and core governmental zones, transportation hubs, hospitals, squares, and communities,” stated the outlet, adding that documents showed a requirement that “pedestrians should be videotaped every 10, 20, and 30 minutes.”
The paper continued, “According to the report, the project successfully recognized 1,158 photos of various local ‘key targets.’ The system identified more than 60 targets for its local ‘Domestic Security’ and more than 10 people accused of crimes.”
And clarified, “China’s Domestic Security Bureau offices make up a secret police force tasked with neutralizing individuals that the Communist Party deems to be political threats.”
A 2019 report by China-focused human rights publication Bitter Winter also covered the Sharp Eyes system, interviewing a Christian from a house church in a rural area of Mainland China covered by the project who voiced concern that the widening surveillance net would completely wipe out freedom of belief.
“If they install any more surveillance cameras in the village, there will truly be nowhere left to go,” they stated, adding, “During the Cultural Revolution, some Christians were able to dig underground cellars for congregations, but I fear in the future we won’t even have a chance to do that.”
Another local unaffiliated with religious organizations, told Bitter Winter, “The CCP is already monitoring us in our homes, what privacy do we have left? It’s like we’ve all got ropes around our necks and are being led on leashes. We’re all living under a microscope, and it’s terrifying.”
And a 2018 report by the Los Angeles Times on the Sharp Eyes project illustrated exactly how centralized law enforcement blanket video surveillance can be used to micromanage society.
“When a resident of Anxi village in the Sichuan province of China set a match to a small pile of garbage in the gutter two years ago, a loudspeaker blared out his name and address and ordered him to extinguish the blaze immediately,” the article read.
The outcome was that the man “jumped with fright, quickly put out the flames and scurried away,” the Times stated as it revealed that Anxi, a town with a population of only 44,000 people, was under 24/7 video monitoring extensive enough to cover 16 screens mounted “in the village security control room.”
Yin Xiuqin, Anxi’s Communist Party Secretary at the time, unabashedly characterized the anecdote as a success when he told the Times, “Everyone knew who the culprit was, so he would never dare to do that again.”
And this overarching surveillance state is exactly the kind of transformation the NYCLU appears to be concerned about, as the Union warned that Ring cameras can not only see 25 feet away, but can also clearly record conversations from as far 20 feet out.
A December of 2021 piece by Business Insider showed that Ring’s potential future data collection capabilities are all the more ominous.
One patent that Insider discovered directly expands on the functions of the Neighbors app to allow a user who sends a “Neighborhood Alert” to automatically cause nearby cameras to start recording.
Other patents expanded Ring’s function from that of a mere camera to a biometric information gathering device, directly employing “facial recognition, as well as palm, finger, retina, iris, skin texture, typing, gait, voice, and even ‘odor recognition’ as examples,” the outlet stated.
Ring’s public relations team emailed Vision Times seeking to clarify that facial recognition technology is not currently employed in the company’s suite of devices. A similar statement was issued by Ring to Business Insider at the time of its article.
Yet, Ring has improved both transparency and adherence to federal law with its law enforcement partnership program, the Neighbors Public Safety Service (NPSS), in the wake of pressure from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who has challenged Amazon on the subject since 2019.
Markey’s approach caused Ring to contract the NYU School of Law’s Policing Project to conduct a “civil rights & civil liberties” audit in 2020.
The Policing Project boasts that a two-year investigation resulted in over 100 changes to Ring’s “products, policies, and legal practices,” such as updating Neighbors to publicly display all Requests for Assistance, requiring law enforcement partners to establish and maintain a public-facing profile, and the onboarding of non-law enforcement agencies, such as local fire departments.
A response to Markey by Brian Huseman, VP of Public Policy at Amazon, admitted to the Senator — and the public — that Amazon had provided video footage collected by a Ring owner to law enforcement without that owner’s consent 11 times, Politico reported in July of 2022.
Huseman stated, “Ring made a good-faith determination that there was an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to a person requiring disclosure of information without delay.”
Politico noted, “Amazon didn’t provide any details about when or where these 11 incidents took place.”