Doorbell cameras worry privacy advocates as Michigan police use them to cut crime

Hannah Brock and Chloe Alverson
Capital News Service

Correction: A word in two quotations by Macomb Community College professor Chris Gilliard has been corrected.

Lansing — Sixty Michigan police and sheriff’s departments have signed agreements with Amazon letting them access footage from Amazon Ring video doorbells.

Privacy experts call it a concern because such surveillance lacks regulation and transparency. 

The camera doorbell is like a nosy neighbor, said Dave Maass, an Electronic Frontier Foundation senior investigative researcher. 

Sixty Michigan police and sheriff’s departments have signed agreements with Amazon letting them access footage from Amazon Ring video doorbells.

“You don’t have to have the neighbor sitting there,” said Maass, whose San Francisco-based organization defends privacy and other civil liberties in the digital world. “Everybody just has a computer doing it for them. It’s no less creepy. It’s actually far creepier.”

While most participating agencies are in Metro Detroit, others include police in Three Rivers, Holland, Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Lansing, Traverse City, St. Johns and Portage.

Law enforcement agencies view the doorbell as just another way to keep their communities safe.

Livonia Police Chief Curtis Caid

“Cameras are everywhere nowadays,” said Livonia Police Chief Curtis Caid. “We all have them. We carry them around with us, they’re (on) our phones. Whether it’s a home or a business, a lot of people have access to monitoring activities through video. Ring is just one of them.”

Ring doorbells have a video camera and microphone, allowing homeowners to listen and speak through them without answering the door. The most basic version records video when motion is detected, but users can opt for a model that’s always recording. 

The Neighbors Public Safety Service free app is built into the Ring app. It lets users share their own videos and view footage shared by other Ring owners. Police can also view that video if they sign an agreement with Amazon.

Maass said law enforcement agencies can request the footage or people can voluntarily share it. They can also get a search warrant for doorbell footage and present it to Amazon without asking the doorbell owner. 

Bringing in a private company like Amazon into police investigations is cause for concern, Maass said. 

When police buy surveillance technology, local officials have a say in the budget and how it’s used. However, Ring doorbell surveillance is outside local officials’ regulation. 

“That means that people who are in the community could abuse it, but also that law enforcement could abuse it,” Maass said. “Because if they’re not spending money, then maybe they don’t have to go through the city council, maybe they don’t have to go through certain approvals.”

Doorbells record more than criminal activity, Maass said. They catch images of neighbors going about day-to-day activities. And that prompts significant privacy concerns for innocent people who live nearby, he said. 

Macomb Community College professor Chris Gilliard agrees that the partnerships are concerning. Much of his research focuses on the importance of digital privacy. 

“It’s really dangerous, these partnerships with law enforcement (and Ring),” said Gilliard, who is a Harvard University Shorenstein Center research fellow studying the overlap of public policy, press and politics. “It’s a way for law enforcement to set up surveillance networks in communities without any kind of transparency or accountability that, typically, we would have with what’s supposed to be a public service.” 

Police can combine surveillance from the Neighbors app with footage from other devices, such as license plate readers, Gilliard said. That allows law enforcement agencies to layer types of surveillance. That’s dangerous, too, because it “erodes privacy,” he said. 

The Neighbors Public Safety Service free app is built into the Ring app. It lets users share their own videos and view footage shared by other Ring owners. Police can also view that video if they sign an agreement with Amazon.

The Neighbors app could also promote problems of implicit bias, according to the Oakland (California) Privacy and Media Alliance. In a study of Ring footage from San Francisco, the alliance found 64% of videos claiming suspicious behavior had subjects of color. 

It found African American men made up 33% of the subjects in footage posted to the app, despite making up less than 6% of the local population. 

Police say the doorbells are important public safety tools.

Livonia police have used Ring footage to solve crimes, such as thefts from automobiles and packages from front decks, Capt. Ron Taig said. 

Once a day, a Livonia detective checks the Neighbors app for community crime alerts from Ring owners, Taig said. Community residents can share footage of crimes directly to police via the app. 

Detectives also check if any homes near crime scenes have a Ring doorbell. Community members are cooperative in sharing their doorbell footage, Taig said.

Recently shots were fired from a vehicle in Livonia, Taig said. In response, detectives asked residents if any Ring cameras caught footage of the incident. 

“This is really the new neighbors watch of 2020-21,” Taig said. “Most people who have these doorbells are like super sleuths. They want to look around. They’re doing it to protect their areas.”

In terms of privacy, Taig said the cameras aren’t surveying public areas, rather, private residences. 

“If you see a doorbell cam and you don’t want to be on it, don’t go on the person’s porch,” Taig said. 

The Ann Arbor Police Department signed an agreement with Amazon in August, Lt. Mike Scherba said. He said he wasn’t sure if the department had used Ring cameras to solve crimes. 

All footage Ann Arbor police receives is voluntarily shared, Scherba said. 

The Clawson Police Department also participates in the Amazon and Neighbors agreement. 

Kelly Horne, the assistant principal at Clawson High School, says it’s a good idea.

“Our house has been targeted a couple times for not-so-nice things,” she said. “Last summer, we caught a couple kids off of our (Ring). It was a pretty clear video right off of our camera on our garage.” 

Horne said it wasn’t difficult to identify the troublemakers.

She and her husband use the Neighbors app. Though they’ve never uploaded any footage, Horne said they always look at app notifications from other users to see what’s going on in the area. 

Horne’s husband is on Clawson’s police force, and the police department gave them a free Ring for their home, she said.

Maass said Ring gives discount codes for its devices to police departments. Amazon also provides language for the departments to post about Ring on social media. 

Police may also promote the Neighbors app through press releases, like the Ferndale and Auburn Hills departments. 

Ashley Muntz of Pinckney said she appreciates the Neighbors app. The Pinckney Police Department also signed the Amazon agreement. 

“It makes you more aware of the things that are going on in the community,” she said. “I do like the fact that our local police are on the system.”

Muntz said if she feels insecure about anything caught on her Ring camera, she’d feel comfortable sending footage to local police. 

But Gilliard said he worries about the lack of laws covering how police should use the footage.

“(Amazon’s) intrinsic goals are primarily to make themselves a bigger and more pervasive company and expand their footprint,” Gilliard said. “Their intrinsic goals, in my opinion, don’t align with a free and equitable society.”