Iowa City Police Department is part of program that shares surveillance videos from Ring doorbells

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Illustration by Jav Ducker.

On Wednesday, Ring — a company that sells doorbells outfitted with security cameras, saving footage to users’ smartphones — released a map showing the 405 police departments it has partnered with in a video-sharing program. In Iowa, only two departments have joined the program: the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the Iowa City Police Department.

According to the map, ICPD began their Ring partnership on Aug. 6.

“We’ve just finished the initial training and familiarization from Ring,” Sgt. Derick Frank, ICPD’s public information officer, told Little Village.

The video-sharing program utilizes the Neighbors app, a Ring companion app that allows users to share information and video about crime and related topics.

“The Neighbors feed operates like an endless stream of local suspicion, combining official police reports compiled by Neighbors’ ‘News Team’ with what Ring calls ‘hyperlocal’ posts from nearby homeowners reporting stolen packages, mysterious noises, questionable visitors and missing cats,” the Washington Post reported this week. “About a third of Neighbors posts are for ‘suspicious activity’ or ‘unknown visitors,’ the company said.”

“The mission has always been making the neighborhood safer,” Eric Kuhn, the general manager of Neighbors, told the Post. “We’ve had a lot of success in terms of deterring crime and solving crimes that would otherwise not be solved as quickly.”

Speaking to Motherboard, Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a civil rights advocacy group focused on digital issues, called Neighbors “a for-profit surveillance dragnet” that is “partnering with local law enforcement agencies in ways that avoid any form of oversight or accountability that police departments might normally be required to adhere to.”

Frank said the ICPD is aware some people are concerned about police agencies partnering with Ring (and, thus, Neighbors), but explained that what the partnership provides ICPD with is very limited.

“We don’t have access to anyone’s cameras,” he said. “We don’t even know how many cameras there are, or where they are located. The Neighbors app just lets us send a request to app users in specific areas and request any video footage they might have.”

Then it’s up to the app user to decide if they want to respond.

“It’s really nothing different than we’ve been doing in the past when it comes to requesting videos,” Frank said. “In the past, we’ve had to go through a neighborhood to see if we could see any cameras, and then go knock on doors and people if they had any video footage. We’ve also been asking in press releases for anyone who has video footage they think could be beneficial to let us know.”

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“Our hope is that this just streamlines that process, and cuts down on the hours and amount of manpower that are required to find potential video in an investigation.”

Earlier this month, Gizmodo broke the news that Ring was trying to use its partnership with police agencies to get those agencies to encourage people to buy Ring doorbells. The company was writing scripts for police to use to persuade people, and providing departments with Ring products coupons to hand out.

Frank said ICPD is not involved in any of those activities.

“We’re not trying to support any particular brand,” he said. “We’re not encouraging anyone to buy any product.”

Frank said the department only decided to participate in the program after it confirmed that people with video equipment not made by Ring can still use the Neighbors app.

“We understand that a lot of people will have different opinions about this, but for us it’s just a communications tool that allow us to reach out to people,” Frank said.

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