As Doorbell Cams Spread, Critics Cite Privacy Loss

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The woodsy community of Wolcott, Ct., population 16,000, doesn’t see much crime. Still, when Police Chief Ed Stephens heard about an opportunity to distribute doorbell cameras to homes, he didn’t hesitate, raffling off free cameras in a partnership with the manufacturer. So far, the devices have encountered more bears than criminals, reports the Associated Press. As more police agencies join with the company known as Ring, the partnerships are raising privacy concerns. Critics complain that the cameras turn neighborhoods into places of constant surveillance and create suspicion that falls heavier on minorities. Police say the devices can serve as a digital neighborhood watch. Critics say Ring, a subsidiary of Amazon, appears to be marketing its cameras by stirring up fear of crime at a time when it’s decreasing. Amazon’s promotional videos show people lurking around homes. The company recently posted a job opening for an editor to “deliver breaking crime news alerts to our neighbors.”

“Amazon is profiting off of fear,” said Chris Gilliard, an English professor at Michigan’s Macomb Community College, a critic of Ring and other technology that he says can reinforce race barriers. Part of the strategy seems to be selling the cameras “where the fear of crime is more real than the actual existence of crime.” Homeowners get phone alerts with streaming video if the doorbell rings or the device’s heat sensors detect a person or a passing car. Ring’s basic doorbell sells for $99, with recurring charges starting at $3 a month for users who want footage stored. Mohammad Tajsar of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called the system “an unmitigated disaster” for neighborhood privacy. Amazon “gets to offer, at taxpayer dime, discounted products that allow it to really expand its tentacles into wide areas of private life way more than it already has,” he said.

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