Police call it a “modern-day neighborhood watch,” a proliferating network of surveillance cameras affixed to the doorbells of private residences. Florida criminal defense lawyers are increasingly wary, citing concerns about privacy – especially because police from here to Houston have been “gifting” these devices to homeowners – using taxpayer money – with the caveat that they must turn these devices over to police upon request (something Amazon – the company that acquired the firm for $1 billion last year – said it will be “cracking down on”).
This was at least the case in Houston, and criminal defense attorneys recognize that it raises the question of possible violations of citizens’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures. If any arrests were made based on footage police demanded an unwilling homeowner fork over, it’s plausible that evidence could be suppressed.
CNet reports more than 50 local police departments have been partnering with the manufacturer of these “smart doorbells” to give them away free, cheaply or with a $3-a-month “subscription service” that allows police to tap into these feeds whenever they want. In some neighborhoods, police can tune in to watch – and record – what’s happening in real time on surveillance footage.
These cameras, increasingly powerful, some with facial recognition and other high-tech features, allow police to amass significant amounts of video surveillance footage. Authorities say this gives subscribing residents some peace of mind, especially when they sign up for a social networks to share camera feeds, such as through the Neighbors app (which police join too). Some police departments have noted these doorbell “Ring cameras” are in every single town throughout their district – allowing them to monitor parts of communities that historically didn’t have that kind of camera coverage.
The question is under what circumstances these “modern-day neighborhood watch” tool – owned by the largest company in the world – could be used for public surveillance might be considered a type of “search” for which the Fourth Amendment would presumably require a warrant.
As one civil rights attorney for the ACLU in California put it, the whole symbiotic arrangement is, “A perfect marriage between law enforcement and one of the world’s biggest companies for a society that few people would want to be a part of.”
And it’s not just Amazon. Google bought home security camera company Nest for $3.2 billion just five years ago. Some 3.4 million of those video surveillance doorbells were sold last year.
Ring, the Amazon-owned company, is a bit unique in that it specifically courted police departments. That started even before Amazon got involved. Police departments can download the free Neighbors app, where people share real-time video, commentary and information on neighborhood crimes. Although some police departments pay for the technology, some providers have been supplying them with the home security systems for free to distribute throughout the community, and some agencies are being strategic in their approach to doing so.
But to make the deal even sweeter for police, Ring gives them access to something called a “law enforcement dashboard,” allowing agencies to geofence areas and ask for certain clips recorded at certain times. Ring insists the cops can only get film from willing residents who use the app, otherwise they’ll have to subpoena the company for it.
Investigators say it’s been used in a number of cases to solve crimes involving doorstep package thieves, something in which Amazon has an invested interest also.
Still, these systems have been hacked before. In December, a group of Ukrainians reportedly watched videos on the public app without customers knowing. But perhaps the bigger concern is a bit closer to home. These types of technologies allow a whole bunch of us to be the “nosey neighbor.” The problem is so many of our moves may be recorded and analyzed – regardless of whether a crime has been committed. Police, meanwhile, can request this footage from residents with just a few taps on their smartphone.
The whole “smart security” systems for residential properties is expected to reach more than $9.5 billion in the next four years.
A growing concern is that police are essentially commandeering private residences as law enforcement surveillance outposts. And what if one person’s home security system squarely trained on their adjacent neighbor’s front door? What expectation of privacy does that individual have?
Companies are reportedly considering adopting facial recognition in their doorbell cameras. Amid some backlash from consumers, the company shied away.
Criminal defense lawyers in Fort Lauderdale encourage residents to think twice before willingly handing this data over to police or even their neighbors – especially when they have little idea what it will be used for.
Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Amazon’s helping police build a surveillance network with Ring doorbells, June 5, 2019, By Alfred Ng, CNet.com