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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Should police be helping Amazon sell its Ring doorbell cameras?

Jessica Hill/Associated Press/FR125654 AP via AP

The woman made her unwitting cameo debut in Malden in early August, when she walked up the front steps of a house on Park Street and bent over to check the mailbox — two days in a row. But it wasn’t her house, or her mailbox. Otherwise, she would have known about the video camera that recorded both visits.

The homeowner posted the video on Neighbors, a social network on which people share reports of suspicious activity in their communities. The Malden police picked up on it and requested a copy from the citizen who posted it. The department even featured screenshots from it on its Facebook page, along with a warning:


“STOP LOOKING INTO MAILBOXES THAT DON’T BELONG TO YOU. It not only concerns the person living there, it also troubles the police department.”

Malden police posted doorbell camera footage on the department’s Facebook page. Malden Police Department

This is Neighborhood Watch for the digital age, when high-resolution cameras with night vision substitute for volunteer foot patrols. With several hundred dollars’ worth of equipment and a decent Internet connection, a homeowner can instantly share images of suspicious activity with neighbors and the police.

It’s also a massive business opportunity for Amazon.com, the online retail giant. Amazon owns Ring, a maker of home security video equipment, which operates the Neighbors social network where the video was posted.

Amazon is also cultivating a powerful partner to help sell its products: your local police force. On Wednesday, Ring revealed it had formed alliances with more than 400 police departments, including at least seven in Massachusetts: Dartmouth, Haverhill, Lowell, Malden, Needham, Quincy, Wellesley. The departments are given access to the Neighbors network to monitor posts from residents and post their own information — such as requests for videos taken by doorbell cameras that may help in investigations.

The alliances have police at times serving as a kind of promotional arm for Amazon. The company donates equipment to police departments to raffle off or to give away to residents at community events, but Ring owners have to pay the company a fee to store their videos online for later use.


Some departments have also used their websites and social media pages to promote discounts on Ring products for residents. Ring also offers discounts to police officers — $50 off of devices for Quincy police, for example.

These arrangements raise questions about whether some departments go too far to help one of the world’s largest corporations sell more products.

And civil libertarians fret that the proliferation of cam-eras will, doorstep by doorstep, form a giant surveillance network, of the kind that Chinese authorities use to monitor millions of residents and even suppress ethnic minorities, such as the Uighurs.

“I don’t want digital technology to create persistent public records of everybody’s movements on public streets,” warned Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “I think people ought to be really careful before installing these devices on their homes.”

There are also concerns that the video networks generate other problems, such as creating a new tool for racial and ethnic profiling. Nextdoor, another popular digital neighborhood-watch service, has had issues with users posting videos of black or Hispanic people who are judged to be suspicious when they’re merely walking down a street.

Nextdoor and Neighbors each say they explicitly forbid such posts.


Meanwhile, many police departments that have signed up with Ring have success stories to tell.

Malden, for example, was plagued by a run of car break-ins earlier this year, with residents posting videos of people lurking around their cars at night. Police have arrested a suspect and say they have a Ring video from a resident that shows a suspect trying to break into a car. And in the case of the woman with a fondness for other people’s mailboxes, police used the video to identify her, saying she remains under investigation.

“The criminals, when they’re aware of surveillance cameras, have refrained from committing crimes,” said Malden’s police chief, Kevin Molis. “Neighbors have been made safer because of it.”

The Neighbors network is open to any resident, regardless of whether they own a Ring product, a competitor’s, or none at all. The network is highly localized; a user with a Boston address, for example, can’t see what’s happening in the Neighbors portal for Quincy.

Police do not have direct access to Ring videos; instead, members decide whether to make them available to police.

“The only way we can get video is if somebody comes to us,” said Malden police Captain Marc Gatcomb. “If they don’t come to us, we don’t get video.”

However, Ring has said that it will provide user video without a user’s permission if the company is served with a search warrant.

Ring has gotten more deeply involved with police elsewhere. In July, the online magazine Vice reported the company worked with police in Aurora, Colo., on a sting operation that left fake packages with Amazon logos on porches where Ring cameras were installed. The goal was to prove the value of the Ring cameras by apprehending a few porch pirates.


“We were hoping for an arrest, but it didn’t come out,” said Anthony Camacho, a spokesman for the Aurora police.

More common are promotional campaigns with police. Quincy police, for example, have received about $3,600 of Ring gear since November, most of which was donated, a police spokeswoman said.

In Needham, police raffled off a Ring camera in June and announced that for every 20 residents who downloaded Ring’s Neighbors app, Amazon would donate another Ring camera for the raffle.

Not every department has played along. Malden police refused to promote discounted Ring products on their Facebook page.

“We did not feel that we should be promoting a private entity,” Gatcomb said. “We keep ourselves neutral.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Ring said it is phasing out its practice of giving away video cameras through police departments. However, it continues to offer rebates for products purchased by citizens through their local governments. In these programs, the city covers part of the cost, and Ring puts up a matching amount.

Ring, however, has even tried to control what public officials can say about the company’s products.

In Needham, Lieutenant Chris Baker said Ring asked that the raffle announcement be reworded to say the company was trying “to give back to the community.” The department said it complied.


Ring said it is simply ensuring that police statements accurately reflect its business and its promotions and Neighbors network help fight crime. “Ring has designed these programs in a way that upholds our user standards and keeps residents in control,” the company said in a statement.

The cameras have been effective as collectors of evidence, said defense attorney Peter Elikann.

“I have had clients who have been picked up on cameras,” said Elikann, former chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section. “It becomes very difficult to fight back. It becomes very strong evidence.”

Amazon’s efforts to build market share make civil libertarians especially uneasy. The company has angered privacy activists by encouraging police departments to adopt its Rekognition facial-recognition system and is working to add similar facial-recognition capabilities to its Ring cameras. A network of such cameras could keep anyone under near-constant surveillance, instantly recognizing a person every time he or she passed by a camera-equipped home or business.

A rival security camera, the Nest Hello device from Google’s parent, Alphabet, can be programmed to recognize a homeowner’s friends and family members.

Crockford, of the American Civil Liberties Union, worries that once enough home security cameras are in place, police and government agencies, and even corporations, will find justifications for using them in ever more intrusive ways.

The ACLU is pushing for a statewide moratorium on government use of facial-recognition software, similar to the bans in place in Somerville and San Francisco, Crockford said, “so that we’re aren’t just stumbling blindly into a dystopian future.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.