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Ring’s Deal with Police Reimagines Neighborhood Watch…

The next-gen neighborhood watch program is here, and it’s brought to you by Amazon. While other tech companies scurry to win your smart home platform (are you going to be a Works with Google Assistant family? Did you already commit to Apple HomeKit?), Amazon has, predictably, set its sights higher. 

Its home security brand Ring is partnering with a growing list of police agencies to establish Ring as the security system of choice for not just individual homes, but for entire communities.

If you live in the jurisdiction of one of the 400 participating police forces across the U.S. who have entered into video-sharing agreements with Ring, you may have been offered discounted Ring products or invited to enter Amazon-subsidized giveaways. After installing, you’re encouraged to register your Ring device with your local agency, adding yourself to a roster of surveillance contacts. 

Here’s how it works: Should a crime occur in your vicinity, police may reach out to you and request your camera’s footage. You are free to share or decline (though anonymity is not certain). Ring also offers a social media component, the Neighbors app. Post footage of suspicious trespassers or package thieves — and browse what was captured by other Ring cameras nearby. 

Best case scenario: Thanks to your Ring camera, police are able to apprehend culprits. Worst case scenario: You contribute to the racial profiling that Motherboard reported as prevalent in the Neighbors app — they found that people of color were disproportionately tagged as “suspicious” people or “strangers” by Neighbors users. 

From the consumer’s perspective, there’s plenty of solid reasons to go with Ring for home security. It’s an affordable, state-of-the-art system. Brilliantly simple programming — you can schedule a series of automations based on whether your alarm system is set to “home” or “away” — makes it uniquely great at balancing smarts and security. 

What’s more, you can get most of the benefits of home security without even paying the small monthly fee Ring charges for professional monitoring. The bleating siren, live footage, plus two hours of recorded footage (more if you throw a couple dollars per month at cloud storage) — it’s plug and play. 

Frequent, uncontextualized alerts about petty crime and strangers glimpsed on the street could foster fear and reify prejudice.

But as tech journalist Jared Newman recently wrote in Fast Company, “Personally, I’m wary of a company that quietly encourages police departments to help sell more doorbell cameras.” Apart from troubling union of Amazon and law enforcement, there’s also the larger issue posed by neighborhood watches in the era of mass surveillance. 

When the FBI publishes its annual report on U.S. crime, it repeatedly includes a caveat: beware of drawing conclusions. Statistics don’t tell the whole story — positive trends aren’t represented alongside negative ones, and low-level crimes can be lumped in with serious ones, misleadingly inflating numbers and “adversely affecting communities and their residents.”

That reminder to take stats with a grain of salt accompanies a once-a-year report. The Ring Neighbor’s app delivers a local crime report once a week. Frequent, uncontextualized alerts about petty crime and strangers glimpsed on the street could foster fear and reify prejudice. Maybe in the next update, a gentle reminder of neighborliness can pop up when you get home and Ring flips on the lights and sets your thermostat to 72 degrees. 


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