The NYPD already has an enormous number of surveillance technologies it uses to peer into the lives of untold numbers of New Yorkers.
It has tens of thousands of cameras that are part of its Domain Awareness System; facial recognition tools; a fleet of drones; x-ray vans that can see through walls; and cell-site simulators that can track people’s locations via their phones. But the department’s voracious appetite for spy gear has compelled it to push even further into a realm many of us still believe is safe from prying eyes: our home.
In November, the NYPD announced it would join Ring Neighbors, an app and social network that’s part of Amazon’s Ring video doorbell camera system. Ring owners — of which there are more than 10 million — can use the Ring Neighbors app to post video from their cameras for the public to see. People without Ring devices are also invited to sign up and post footage from their personal phones or other cameras and engage with posts in their area.
Now the NYPD can see all of those posts, request specific content submissions, and encourage the public to take part in investigations. The department may also be able to request videos from users that haven’t been posted on the network — although Amazon apparently removed this feature recently after much public outcry.
In partnering with Amazon Ring, the NYPD is joining more than 2,500 local government agencies — the vast majority of which are local law enforcement. These partnerships with government agencies have rapidly expanded in recent years. Already, 226 government partnerships (203 local police departments and 23 fire departments) exist across New York.
There is no independent oversight over the full capabilities of Amazon Ring and what it allows law enforcement to do. But past reporting reveals close partnerships between the Amazon marketing team and police departments, and law enforcement agencies have handed out free or subsidized cameras to the public. Amazon Ring has also catered to police departments by offering detailed mapping features that allow police to see all Ring cameras in their area.
Being a part of Ring Neighbors allows the NYPD to peek inside the lives of countless New Yorkers as they go about their day, perhaps even while they are in or just outside their own homes. There is also reason to believe the people most impacted by this invasive new tool will be people of color.
By using Ring Neighbors, the NYPD is effectively deputizing app users, and this form of crowdsourced surveillance is inevitably informed by users’ racial biases. Vice news looked at two months of footage captured on Ring cameras in parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Hoboken, N.J. and determined people of color were tagged in most of the posts labeled “suspicious activity.”
Once the NYPD gets a hold of people’s footage, they can run it through the department’s facial recognition system. Facial recognition is notoriously inaccurate, especially when used on people of color, women, and young people. This is one more way Ring cameras will put innocent people of color under suspicion.
Despite these dangers, there’s good reason to believe the NYPD will make heavy use of its new partnership. Through April 2021, law enforcement departments made more than 22,000 requests to users for content. And if users don’t agree to hand over their footage, police can go around them and request the video directly from Amazon.
Ring cameras are designed to be powerful surveillance devices. The company’s website proudly declares the doorbell’s motion sensors are “designed to detect motion up to 155 degrees horizontally and from five to 25 feet outward from the fixture.” The device can also record conversations from as far as 20 feet away.
But as alarming as Ring cameras’ current features are, the company is considering making its devices even more powerful and intrusive. Patents paint a dystopian vision of potential future capabilities: Business Insider reported on a myriad of concerning proposals including biometric surveillance through face, retina, iris, skin, gait, voice, and even “odor recognition”; “suspicious activity” detection; and even using the technology for “criminal prosecution.”
The NYPD’s Amazon Ring partnership is obviously concerning, but it could also run afoul of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act. The New York City law requires the NYPD to inform the public and publish an “impact and use” policy 90 days before it uses new surveillance technology. No such announcement was made before the NYPD established its relationship with Amazon Ring.
The NYPD’s use of Amazon Ring provides the department with another rapidly growing, massive surveillance network that is centralized and controlled by one of the largest corporations on earth. Amazon Ring incentivizes people to be suspicious of everyone they encounter and fuels their worst racial biases. It also gives the NYPD and other police departments a tool to circumvent the requirements needed for a warrant.
Beyond all this, it remains entirely unclear what capabilities police can utilize through their law enforcement access to the platform. What we do know is the NYPD and other police departments shouldn’t be blindly trusted to responsibly wield the incredible spying capabilities that Amazon Ring grants them.