Tonight (Sept 23rd) at City Council is discussing the addition of numerous additional police/traffic cameras in our community. Mita Williams has a very insightful take that can be found on her blog here. Although an important debate that I am going to watch, the story I am more interested in is this one with Mayor Dilken’s mentioning that Windsor Police is in early stage negotiations to form a partnership with Ring.
Ring for those who are not aware, is an Amazon owned company that puts a camera in your doorbell and connects via wifi to an app on your smartphone. In principle this camera and app allows through motion detection notification monitor whenever someone comes to your door and in turn deter crime and assist in solving crime by putting eyes on the street. It also can lead to great videos like these.
If a crime occurs in a neighbourhood the police service can request (without a warrant) from Ring for the data for a time period and geographic area. Users can choose to voluntarily share this video with police services with Ring also sharing data about how many requests were fulfilled and in the past data on who said no. It is true that users have a choice in sharing their data, the issue that emerges is that all of that data is being collected regardless of being shared.
In principle, I am not against a potential partnership between Windsor Police and Ring but where is the justification and how is this partnership going to impact privacy in our community? The argument that is it reduces crime through putting more eyes on the street and that may be true, but it also drive up false alarms calls, it could lead to incidents of racial profiling and Amazon’s shady history of protecting data. The question is do we want every front door in the city to be watching us? With 400 + police forces in the US already partnered with Ring, the company are potentially building a massive data archive of video activity. Watching your kids get home from school, your friends come over, the delivery guy dropping off your Amazon order. Even though Ring doesn’t use facial recognition it does a department and head working in that space in Ukraine of all places which could add another layer to this technology.
Does it Work?
The data on whether or not Ring actually drives down crime is mixed (partially because it is withheld by the company) but as a study reviewed by MIT Technology Review stated.
The pilot and control areas had experienced similar crime levels in previous years and shared a Neighborhood Watch group. It would be an “apples to apples” comparison, Rock told the city council. His hope was that the program would quantify the police hours (and associated dollars) saved by each doorbell, possibly justifying a subsidy program like the ones in California.
West Valley’s program ran from September 2017 to August 2018. Its results were fairly clear. In one of the two neighborhoods, burglaries fell by 50% over the year, compared with a 41% drop next door. The first neighborhood also saw all property crime (including auto thefts and burglaries) fall by 32%, while its twin had just a 25% dip. And during the last month of the test, the charmed area experienced no property crime whatsoever—an “outlier month that’s hard to account for,” says Rock.
The only problem is, the safer neighborhood was the control group. In other words, homes without Ring doorbells were less likely to suffer a break-in, or property crime of any kind.
There is no doubt that there is piece of mind to owners of Ring products but if a funding a neighbourhood watch accomplishes the same goal as Ring Doorbells why aren’t we funding that? The fact that Ring Doorbells has been caught putting pressure on police forces that it partners with is concerning. From controlling messaging to providing steep discounts that drive the proliferation and market share. Frankly, Ring is just the natural evolution of Amazon’s business model that see a package brought to your door. Now for $90 per year you make sure no one steals that package.
In our local context will this drive crime reductions, lets try and break it down:
- First is there a crime issue in Windsor that this tool will help solve? I completely agree that more eyes on the street is good but as the quote above illustrates (it is a n=1 sample) if a good neighbourhood watch program is just as effective way are we paying a company do it?
- A basic Ring door bells cost $125 + a optional subscription on Amazon.ca. In the Windsor context who is buying a door bell? Given the high low income rates and renter rates in the City core where perceptions about crime and safety are most acute, will they pay for it.
- In Wards 2, 3, 4, 5 fifty two percent (52%) of dwellings are rented (2016 Census) vs twenty-three percent (23%) in the other six wards. Which leads to two other questions:
- Can we reach the density of these cameras in high rental areas to actually catch and track crime in the core, where perceptions of crime are high vs quiet suburban streets where they are perceived as safe?
- Can landlords install a Ring Doorbell on a property as a feature but then use it to spy on renters, coming and going?
- In other communities municipalities bought subsided Ring Doorbells to distribute to their communities via giveaways, raffles etc. This was the only way to get coverage in parts of the community. Tax dollars at work.
- Oh by the way, Amherstburg… You opt in automatically if Windsor Police Services does as the police force is the partner, not the municipality.
This isn’t to say that Ring is bad, but in our community’s context it is arguably just a tool to placate fears that are largely unfounded. It is a business model of mitigating the fear of the unknown. What Ring offers is of piece of mind, and political cover in a community where perceptions of crime are likely much worse than the reality.
I hope that there will be a robust debate on this issue as it is one of those topics that until you really think about it can move forward past a point of no return very quickly.