SALT LAKE CITY — In a world that’s increasingly under near-constant video surveillance in one form or another, where is the line that divides appropriate monitoring, in the name of public safety, and every individual’s constitutionally protected right of personal privacy?
That’s a question being raised regularly now thanks to the development, and proliferation, of a host of new, high-tech video cameras being deployed everywhere from light posts, to the chests of law enforcement officers, to the front porches and bedrooms of millions of U.S. consumers.
Exacerbating the conversation are new relationships being forged between law enforcement agencies and the purveyors of internet-connected home video cameras, like the popular Ring doorbell cameras. These cameras are frequently capturing images far beyond just the personal property of the user, looking out into public space and, in many cases, also functioning as a defacto monitor of other private property.
Ring — now a subsidiary of Amazon after the e-commerce giant purchased the company last year in a deal valued at over $1 billion — has agreements in place with over 500 U.S. law enforcement agencies, as of the end of last year.
Ring is reporting three such agreements in Utah, including the Salt Lake City Police Department, which joined the Ring network last June. Ring’s “law enforcement legal process” guidelines state the company “will only provide video content in response to a valid search warrant or with the verified consent of the account owner.” Salt Lake police spokeswoman Christina Judd said the Ring agreement allows the agency to create a login to an app created by Ring, called Neighbors, where Ring users and others can post videos of suspicious activity or incidents captured by their cameras.
Salt Lake police can log in to the app and see what videos have been uploaded and tagged as “crime” by users. If police see evidence to indicate a crime has occured, their protocol is to respond to the poster through the app and request that they contact police via email. Officers do not have access to identifying information of app users, according to Salt Lake police, and if they’re looking for assistance with a crime in a particular neighborhood, they can ask Ring for assistance in reaching out to its customers to ask, on behalf of police, for access to video footage.
“We do not have the capability to access footage directly from the doorbell camera, nor the desire to do so,” Judd said. “If we need footage to assist with a crime, say in the case of a murder, an officer contacts the homeowner and requests the videos. Contacting the homeowner would be by knocking on doors, as we are never given any information by Ring about who does or does not have cameras.
“We could also use our login to Ring to draw a map around an area and submit a request through Ring who then asks users to submit video. The user can choose not to share video at all, provide the video, or ignore the request. If the video is submitted, the user is anonymized to us by Ring.”
Last fall, more than 30 civil rights organizations published a letter calling on municipal leaders to cancel agreements with Ring and to “pass surveillance oversight ordinances that will deter police departments from entering into such agreements in the future.”
The groups allege Ring live camera footage can be accessed by Amazon employees and contractors, that the system lacks end-to-end encryption and is thus vulnerable to hackers, and that agreements with law enforcement agencies lack oversight and accountability measures.
“Amazon’s technology creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely,” the letter reads. “In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI.”
Police body cameras have been fraught with controversy from their inception and, even though they were in use in the U.K. in the mid-2000s, did not begin coming into wide use in the U.S. until about five years ago. Many attribute the uptick to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in early 2014 as a watershed moment as public demand for higher police accountability soon followed. Adoption of body cameras by law enforcement was also aided by a federal government program launched in late 2014 by former President Barack Obama that offered grants to help local agencies defray the cost of new body cameras.
While polling has consistently shown public support for the use of body cameras as a method of raising police accountability, academic assessments of that outcome have been decidedly mixed. Recent George Mason University research that looked at over 70 studies on the topic concluded that “(body worn cameras) have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police.”
Now, the ability for those cameras to live stream audio and video is raising new questions about the devices, which can be operated either by the officer wearing the camera or via a remote operator. Foremost among those concerns is the possibility that a widely deployed body camera network could be used as a communitywide surveillance tool and, potentially, if coupled with fast-evolving tools like facial recognition technology, could create profound challenges to Fourth Amendment guarantees of personal privacy.
Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, opined on the issue in a blog post when news surfaced that livestreaming body cameras were under development.
“Body camera video should NOT be used in systems that livestream video to centralized monitoring stations and allow police management to activate and monitor any given officer’s camera at will,” Stanley wrote. “That is not the right balance between privacy and oversight and practicality.
“Body cameras are there to provide evidence and accountability in disputed circumstances, not to help furnish police departments with all-seeing views of American cities and towns.”
Salt Lake police said the streaming-capable Axon 3 is still only in testing mode and, should the department adopt the camera for deployment to its 550 or so officers, new policy guidelines would be adopted regarding the circumstances under which streaming would be utilized.
Lawmakers are also grappling with the adoption of new rules to guide the use of both law enforcement body cameras and law enforcement relationships with consumer security camera systems, like Ring.
According to data assembled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, some 23 states have passed legislation guiding the use, access and storage of police body camera footage. Utah has passed a series of laws, going back to 2015, that have variously required agencies using the cameras to establish policy for the cameras’ use, making released footage subject to requests under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, and establishing rules for third-party use of police footage.
Last fall, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expressing his concerns over Ring agreements with U.S. law enforcers and highlighting how surveillance networks could, when combined with facial recognition technology, lead to racial profiling issues.
“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” Markey wrote. “I am particularly alarmed to learn that Ring is pursuing facial recognition technology with the potential to flag certain individuals as suspicious based on their biometric information.”