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Police partnerships with Amazon Ring raise alarms about racial bias, privacy

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Published in Science & Technology News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As nationwide protests force a deep examination of police tactics and funding, technology companies say they are re-evaluating their relationship with law enforcement as well. Amazon has halted police use of its facial recognition technology for one year and the website Nextdoor has stopped forwarding tips to police.

Now, privacy groups and activists are scrutinizing the relationships between Amazon and local police departments that allow law enforcement to request access to video recordings from doorbell cameras installed in private homes.

Amazon's expanding network of law enforcement "partners" for its Neighbors app remains intact, an arrangement that critics say is designed to boost sales of its Ring cameras and capitalize on fears of property crime. Social media and news channels are filled with stories of package thieves and other incidents captured on Ring cameras, which acts as a form of marketing for the products.

Seeking access to video footage and crime tips, law enforcement agencies in Elk Grove and Rocklin, and sheriff's offices in El Dorado and Placer counties have each signed on to be partners. The Roseville Police Department is considering a partnership, too.

The Neighbors app attracts the same kind of conversations as Nextdoor. Many conversations are indeed about property crime, missing pets, and community disturbances. It also allows residents to make snap judgments about people they don't recognize and promptly alert police.

At a time when Black Lives Matter and other activists are demanding cities cut back on police spending, the agreements with Amazon motivate the kind of profiling that contributes to harmful encounters with police, privacy groups and activists say.

 

"They encourage a kind of vigilantism and racism in the use of the Neighbors platform that is deeply troubling," said Mohammad Tajsar, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. "And that will hurt poor people, homeless people and people of color who are innocents and have done nothing wrong other than being captured by cameras owned by wealthier homeowners."

No money typically changes hands between Amazon and the law enforcement agencies. But privacy experts say the agreements could also give the impression that the government favors Ring camera products over all others.

Some cities have gone so far as subsidizing the purchase or Ring cameras for residents, and local police departments and Amazon often coordinate messaging when the partnerships are announced and agencies agree to increase users of the website.

This is one of many red flags, experts say.

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