Mattapoisett Joins Neighbors Online Surveillance ‘Ring’

They’re called “porch pirates”: people who steal unattended packages delivered to your doorstep. As this annoying petty crime has increased over the years as e-commerce grows, so has the prevalence of package theft.

            The online megacorporation Amazon acquired “Ring,” a startup that began making smart doorbells with security cameras, for $1 billion in February 2018. The security camera can be linked to an app called “Neighbors,” that can share footage from the camera on an online surveillance network set up much like a social media newsfeed.

            In essence, it’s a marriage between technology and the old-fashioned concept of a neighborhood watch group.

            Since launching this online surveillance network in May 2018, over 600 municipal police departments across the country have joined the network, which allows a user’s local police department to view, post, respond to incidents posted to the Neighbors app, and also formally request user footage to assist in an investigation.

            This month, Mattapoisett became one of those participating police departments, making it only the second such department on the entire South Coast and Cape Cod region.

            Dartmouth Police was the first in our region.

            “By working together, we can all make Mattapoisett a safer community,” Mattapoisett Police announced in a post to its Facebook page on December 18.

            The app is free and can be downloaded by anyone, not just Amazon Ring users. It’s being used to share information with residents in one’s own area about crimes, incidents surrounding public safety, suspicious observations, suspicious people, and even lost pets. App users can receive real-time alerts, share anonymous tips, directly from their smartphones, and stay current on local crime and safety.

            Across the county, the online surveillance network now dubbed the “new neighborhood watch,” has proven effective in deterring opportunistic crime such as porch pirating and capturing perpetrators; however, some privacy advocates, civil rights groups, and social justice organizations warn about the unintended consequences that exist as a result of the surveillance network, especially for people of color.

            Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey in a September 5, 2019 letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, expressed his own concern with the civil liberties issues that have surfaced.

            “Although innovative approaches to law enforcement to keep neighborhoods safe and combat crime are encouraged and welcome, the nature of Ring’s products and its partnerships with police departments raise serious privacy and civil liberties concern,” Markey wrote.

            In addition to the capturing and storing of video from millions of households of bystanders, many of whom are unaware that they are being filmed, Markey expressed another concern about civil liberties.

            “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 stated in his letter, adding that he was particularly alarmed to hear of Ring’s pursuit of a facial recognition technology to flag certain individuals based on their biometric information – technology that disproportionately misidentified people of Latinos and African Americans.

            In a December 17, 2019, open letter to Bezos and Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff, digital rights organization MediaJustice (formerly the Center for Media Justice) wrote regarding racism and Ring: 

            “…[Y]our company’s Neighbors app stokes false alarms over ‘rising’ crime by encouraging neighbors to spy on one another. This app is not designed to prevent crime, but rather it is designed to escalate neighborhood watch programs where individuals are likely to make assumptions about people of color, people experiencing homelessness, and other marginalized people. Your surveillance products weaponize race and digitize racial profiling so many communities of color already experience.”

            Ring does not currently use facial recognition in its Ring technology; however, it filed an application for a patent on facial recognition technology, which, in Amazon’s November 1 response to Senator Markey, is referred to as a “contemplated, but unreleased feature” of the Ring.

            In an email response to The Wanderer for comment on Mattapoisett Police joining Ring’s Neighbors network, Mattapoisett Police Chief Mary Lyons said on December 23, “There are always safety and security concerns when using the Internet to communicate. One would hope that the neighbors signed onto the group would be respectful of everyone and use the group network for the purpose it was designed for.”

            Lyons explained that in order to join a Neighbors group, they must be sent a code number to use to sign up. And some people may share that code with others who are not in the community or neighborhood, she said, adding those individuals could potentially misuse the site.

            “Everyone should be cautious when posting personal information to a public communication site,” said Lyons. “Many companies sell the database containing your personal information to other companies without notifying you. There are many cases of Internet fraud.”

            Mattapoisett Police reminds residents that use Ring or the Neighbors app that they should still call 911 in the event of an emergency.

By Jean Perry

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