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Your camera, the police, and you

When you install a surveillance device in your home or business, you’re not necessarily the one doing the watching.

Amazon's Ring doorbell camera.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

For decades, people around the globe have been sold on the enticing lie that if we simply install more cameras, we can buy more safety, using surveillance to wall ourselves off from crime. It was never true, of course. Since the earliest days of CCTV, researchers raised the alarm that the technology was great at capturing grisly images for the evening news and morning paper, but it was terrible at actually doing what it was advertised to do. Cameras record crimes; they don’t often prevent them. But in the age of Internet-enabled cameras, when home surveillance systems are cheaper than ever, the cost to your privacy is getting higher as police increasingly use cameras against their owners.

You may draw comfort from the images of your child playing in the living room or seeing every person who walks by, but the truth is that there is no one photographed and tracked more by a home security system than the person who lives there. You’re the one being watched, and it’s a lot simpler than you think for the police to look.


While you may think this sort of government access is a bug, for companies like Amazon, it’s a feature. Since acquiring the surveillance startup Ring, Amazon has heavily invested in building out partnerships with more than 2,000 police departments, giving officers easy ways not just to contact camera owners but to request footage from Amazon directly. Typically, this takes the form of a warrant or subpoena to Amazon — not a warrant or subpoena to the camera owner but to Amazon itself. You may buy the camera; you may install it; you may think of it as your own. But when your most intimate moments live on Amazon’s servers, the company’s employees are the ones who can hand them over to police.

That’s concerning enough, but last month Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey revealed that Amazon gave police access to footage nearly a dozen times without anything more than a simple request. No warrant, no subpoena, no court oversight, just a simple Web form saying that officers needed footage.


Maybe these really were emergencies, maybe not — there’s truly no way for us to know. We also don’t know who was in the footage that was requested. What we do know is that if this can happen once, it can happen a thousand times. Amazon has given police departments the power to peer into our homes at will, leaving only the police to decide when it’s justified.

If Amazon users find their surveillance systems turned against them, at least they had a choice in the first place. Amazon’s policies aren’t a problem for those of us who resist the home-tracking trend. But the privacy threat goes far beyond one company. In a growing number of cities, residents don’t get to decide whether to set up surveillance.

For example, under New York City’s Domain Awareness system, feeds from tens of thousands of cameras at businesses around the city were routed into New York Police Department servers. For many of us, the scale of the tracking was profoundly creepy, but still, it was those businesses’ choice to participate.

Then came the more subtle coercion. In cities like Detroit, public-private surveillance partnerships like “Project Green Light” installed public cameras on private property, giving the city a view of hundreds of sites. It was still businesses’ choice whether or not to join, but now with a catch. Participating firms were promised that they would receive prioritized 911 response for taking part, getting bumped to the head of the line in an emergency. Faced with the prospect of waiting longer for help in a life-threatening situation, would business owners feel like they have much of a choice at all?


But even Detroit’s coercion is better than the latest camera mandate, this time out of Houston. Everything is truly bigger in Texas, including the surveillance state. Under a measure that recently went into effect, convenience stores and other businesses will have to install cameras, whether they want them or not. And even worse, the footage is up for grabs whenever the police want it, no warrant or subpoena needed.

The Houston law clearly goes too far, and I hope the courts will soon strike it down, but the danger is so much broader than in one city. As America looks for simple solutions to complicated crime conundrums, we pay the price with our privacy and our property rights. Seeing so many people waste billions of dollars on technology that doesn’t deliver on its claims is frustrating. But seeing companies and police shred our civil rights for this boondoggle is truly enraging.

It’s long past time for cities to rein their police departments in. But even if they don’t act, consumers ought to. The modern surveillance state is possible only because of all the recording devices we’ve allowed into our businesses and homes.


Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, and a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. Follow him on Twitter @FoxCahn.