Thursday, April 18, 2024

Is Big Brother watching? Here’s what Wilmington police can – and can’t – do with their doorbell-camera partnership

Wilmington Police have partnered with the smart doorbell company Ring to help access information and video to help solve crimes (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
Wilmington Police have partnered with the smart doorbell company Ring to help access information and video to help solve crimes. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WILMINGTON — Technology like the Ring doorbell-camera has given us plenty of viral videos and has helped prevent potential crimes and identify would-be thieves — but did you know those same videos could be collected by your local law enforcement agencies as surveillance?

The Wilmington Police Department (WPD) has partnered with Ring through the Neighbors app. While WPD has been working with the company for about a month, WPD is publically announcing its partnership now, according to spokeswoman Linda Thompson.

“Wilmington Police Department is partnering with the Neighbors app by Ring. This free app is a way for residents to receive real-time local crime and safety updates and important information directly from their smartphones. Ring launched the Neighbors app in May of 2018 as part of their mission to support safer neighborhoods and more connected communities by creating a free tool for residents and local law enforcement to share real-time local crime and safety information whether or not they own a Ring device,” according to Thompson.

Using video surveillance from Ring and other doorbell cameras is nothing new when it comes to policing. Thompson said WPD was able to identify and arrest package thieves hitting the area during the last holiday season thanks to a resident submitting a video to them.

“Wilmington residents can text ‘wilmingtonnc’ to 555888 from their smartphone to download the Neighbors app for free on iOS and Android or download the app here. Once downloaded, residents can join their digital neighborhood and use the app to: view neighborhood activity; share crime and safety-related videos, photos, and text-based posts; and receive regional safety alerts from their neighbors, local law enforcement and the Ring team – all in real-time,” Thompson wrote in an email.

For Police Chief Ralph Evangelous, using tehnology is just keeping up with the times when it comes to fighting crime.

“We realize that we can no longer just fight crime through traditional methods, but we must employ innovative technology and methods like the Neighbors app from Ring. This app will help us to gather critical information to solve crimes,” Evangelous said. “Our partnership with Ring has already proven to be successful.

“Last week police were able to arrest 53-year-old, Thomas Wilson, Jr and charge him with felony breaking and entering, larceny after breaking and entering and bicycle theft. Wilson’s arrest came after a Ring customer posted video of the suspect on the Neighbors app wandering around his property. Within an hour police were able to identify and locate Wilson and place him under arrest,” he concluded.

So what can police actually access?

Privacy concerns are a natural reaction to the news that the police departments will suddenly have access to camera streams throughout the city.

According to the Washington Post, “The doorbell-camera company Ring has forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them potential access to homeowners’ camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls the nation’s ‘new neighborhood watch.'”

According to Ring, police do have access to the application, but it is not apparently carte blanche access to resident’s video streams or locations of specific ring systems.

According to the company’s website, law enforcement agencies can use a tool called the Neighbors Portal to:

  • Post important information about crime and safety alerts in their community. View and comment on public posts as an identified law enforcement officer.
  • Use the Video Request tool to ask Ring to request video footage from device owners who are in the area of an active investigation.
  • When making a video request to Ring, law enforcement must reference a relevant case, and can only request video recordings within a limited time and area. 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.

The Neighbors Portal is also designed to limit the information that law enforcement is able to access so that our users’ privacy is protected:

  • No access to devices: Law enforcement agencies are never given access to users’ cameras or devices through the Neighbors Portal or by Ring.
  • No user account information: Users are identified only as “Neighbor #” — although law enforcement knows that users posting content reside within their jurisdiction, law enforcement cannot see or access user account information.
  • No device location: The Neighbors Portal does not provide law enforcement with the addresses at which any devices are located.
  • No direct access to users when making video requests: Law enforcement must go through the Ring team when making a video request. Ring does not provide law enforcement with information about our users unless a user decides to share video recordings with law enforcement in which case the user’s email and location address are disclosed.”

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