It’s not just a home surveillance system. It’s a surveillance system.
Documents obtained by the EFF and shared with The Intercept show law enforcement used footage from Ring doorbell cameras -- cameras some people have obtained for free from Ring’s thousands of law enforcement "partners" -- to hunt down people protesting police violence.
The documents show the Los Angeles Police Department sent requests to Los Angeles residents asking them for footage recorded by their cameras. But the LAPD did not specify what sort of footage it was looking for. The task force making the request was charged with investigating crimes committed "during protests and demonstrations."
This information was vaguely conveyed to Ring owners in the area. The requests didn’t even bother to specify whether the "incident" the LAPD was investigating could even have been captured by the doorbell cameras targeted by this request.
"The LAPD ‘Safe L.A. Task Force’ is asking for your help,” reads the message, from detective Gerry Chamberlain. “During recent protests, individuals were injured & property was looted, damaged, and destroyed. In an effort to identify those responsible, we are asking you to submit copies of any video(s) you may have for [redacted].” The request appears to have made no mention of what exactly the LAPD was pursuing; no crime, proven or alleged, is described in the unredacted portion of the request, only that the police wanted footage of an unspecified “incident” related to a protest. The redacted portion of the request does not appear to contain any substantive further description.
This was not the only message sent. The documents show the LAPD made additional requests following other demonstrations, in essence asking Los Angeles residents to rat out people engaged (for the most part) in peaceful protests. The task force wasn’t asking for any info about specific crimes, but rather anything that showed people doing stuff that (again, for the most part) was protected by the First Amendment.
And there wasn’t a lot of criminal activity. At least, not so much the LAPD should have felt comfortable sending out blanket requests for footage from cameras owned by private citizens.
In October, the Los Angeles Times cited LAPD data showing that the “vast majority” of the city’s Black Lives Matter rallies, part of a national wave of outraged mobilization following the police killing of Floyd, were peaceful, with only “between 6% and 7%” of protests resulting in any violence, including violence perpetrated by the LAPD itself.
But Ring has made aggressive inroads with thousands of law enforcement "partners." And it has provided them with instructions for requests like these -- ones that evade warrant or subpoena requirements.
On the plus side, the requests make any handover of footage completely voluntary. Bear in mind that law enforcement "requests" for footage are perceived by citizens as being far less voluntary than law enforcement perceives them to be. But the bottom line is these are requests, not demands. Even so, the LAPD would rather not answer questions about its mass emails or their efficiency rate.
And that’s a problem Ring doesn’t have an answer for. Indeed, it’s an answer Ring doesn’t even appear to care about. Ring likes cops. The people actually buying and/or deploying its cameras appear to be far down the list of things Ring cares about. As far as Ring is concerned, the market it has cornered is little more than an extension of existing government surveillance networks. If it did care about its users, it would have done more to protect them from malicious hackers and law enforcement officers who can’t be bothered to boilerplate up a warrant affidavit.
Even if you decide the First Amendment question isn’t settled enough to give Los Angeles residents pause when handing over footage to cops, the mutual appreciation society formed by Ring and law enforcement cuts private citizens out of the equation. It turns their cameras into cop cameras.
Sure, people may retain control of the devices and ignore emailed requests for footage, but Ring is doing all it can to erase the line between public and private. It allows law enforcement agencies to give cameras to citizens, increasing the chance the recipients of these freebies will be receptive law enforcement requests. It gives cops a portal that shows them where cameras are located, giving the government information it wouldn’t have under other circumstances. Finally, Ring inserts itself into the PR process, giving itself final approval on press statements from law enforcement that involve its products, allowing it to craft a more self-serving narrative.
There’s no indication this effort was limited to areas where criminal activity during protests was suspected. Instead, the portal provided by Ring made it possible for the LAPD to ask for private citizens’ inadvertent recordings of protected speech. This is secondhand surveillance. And its encroachment into our everyday lives should be greeted with suspicion. This is an opportunistic approach to law enforcement, one that embraces mission creep.
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