This is not a drill. Red alert: The police surveillance center in Jackson, Mississippi, will be conducting a 45-day pilot program to live stream the security cameras, including Amazon Ring cameras, of participating residents.
Since Ring first made a splash in the private security camera market, EFF and Mozilla have been warning of its potential to undermine the civil liberties of its users and their communities. We’ve been especially concerned with Ring’s 1,000+ partnerships with local police departments, which facilitate bulk footage requests directly from users without oversight or having to acquire a warrant.
While people buy Ring cameras, or other commercially available security cameras, and put them on their front door to keep their packages safe, police can use them to build comprehensive closed circuit TV (CCTV) camera networks blanketing whole neighborhoods. This serves two police purposes. First, it allows police departments to avoid the cost of buying surveillance equipment and to put that burden onto consumers by convincing them they need cameras to keep their property safe. Second, it evades the natural reaction of fear and distrust that many people would have if they learned police were putting up dozens of cameras on their block, one for every house.
Now, our worst fears have been confirmed. Police in Jackson, Mississippi, have started a pilot program that would allow security camera owners, including Ring owners, to patch the camera streams from their front doors directly to a police Real Time Crime Center. The footage from your front door includes you coming and going from your house, your neighbors taking out the trash, and the dog walkers and delivery people who do their jobs in your street. In Jackson, this footage can now be live streamed directly onto a dozen monitors scrutinized by police around the clock. Even if you refuse to allow your footage to be used that way, your neighbor’s camera pointed at your house may still be transmitting directly to the police.
Amazon and Ring have stressed publicly that they are not directly involved with this pilot program. The company that will be providing the service to Jackson is PILEUM, which calls its product “fusus Unified Awareness For Smarter Policing.” The company claims, via their YouTube channel, to connect a “Fusus core” which “detects, analyzes, and connects every camera on the building’s network and builds a separate secure feed to a single web-based platform..” But it is still unclear how it does this.
Only a few months ago, Jackson became the first city in the southern United States to ban police use of face recognition technology. Clearly, this is a city that understands invasive surveillance technology when it sees it, and knows when police have overstepped their ability to invade privacy.
If police want to build a surveillance camera network, they should only do so in ways that are transparent and accountable, and ensure active resident participation in the process. In the many cities that have enacted Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) ordinances, residents through their legislators have more say in whether or not police may build a program like this. The choices you and your neighbors make as consumers should not be hijacked by police to build out their own surveillance networks. The decision making process must be led by communities.
Here is the response we received from Amazon in regards to the original version of this post: "[Amazon and Ring] are not involved in any way with any of the companies or the city in connection with the pilot program. The companies, the police and the city that were discussed in the article do not have access to Ring’s systems or the Neighbors App. Ring customers have control and ownership of their devices and videos, and can choose to allow access as they wish."
But it is not enough for Amazon’s Ring to help build infrastructures around the country for seamless police access to surveillance camera footage, and then sit idly by when, inevitably, some police build on this infrastructure to obtain live access to the cameras. Ring could take steps like blocking access or banning police departments, but they aren’t. While Ring may not be directly involved with this pilot program, they have spent years nurturing partnerships with local police and stoking people’s fears about crime. As such, Ring has created an environment that has normalized police access to camera footage, setting the stage for this type of invasive surveillance network.