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Amazon's Ring brand has an app called Neighbors that lets people know about crime in their area. It's been raising privacy concerns recently.
Gizmodo reported that Amazon is working to tap into 911 call systems to provide updates to neighborhoods, and is working with 225 police departments around the U.S. who can request video footage from Ring doorbell users.
The app shows video clips from other Ring doorbells and provides alerts about crime in your area. For example, a neighbor might post clips from their doorbell showing a package theft, a suspicious person or a burglary. And "News Team" notices provide updates about things like fires, burglaries and other notable events.
While there are clear benefits to the police partnership, it also raises the concern that Ring doorbells are helping to enable police surveillance by letting them tap into cameras all over the place. Someone could, for example, let police review footage of a person who isn't doing anything wrong at all.
You might not have heard about the Neighbors app, but anyone can download and use it, even folks who don't own a Ring doorbell. I'll show you what it's like, where it can be useful and where it raises some obvious concerns about privacy and creating a police state.
The app opens to this screen, which is basically a feed posted by Ring doorbell owners in your area. It shows "suspicious" and "crime" activity. I like this because it shows me a bunch of things in my neighborhood I didn't know about, like someone appearing to steal a bag of groceries from a front porch.
Neighbors can post comments on anything in the crime feed. That can help create a sort of digital neighborhood watch. On the other hand, it could create a false alarm about an incident that isn't even a crime.
Anyone with the Neighbors app can upload a photo or video with a title and description about what they're posting. You can label it as a crime, which the app says has to be "illegal action which is punishable by law."
If this sounds like what you're posting, tap "Yes." If you're reporting a safety, suspicious or strange incident, tap "no." If you've already reported the crime, you can post a case number, the police agency and the agency phone number, too.
But it can be abused. As you can see, I posted a picture of my sandwich as suspicious activity and said it stole packages. (I was afraid the police would come if I reported it as a crime.) While a post doesn't mean someone will be charged with a crime, you can see how easy it is for someone to label anything as suspicious.
There are also updates from a feature called News Team that mention things like nearby fires, robberies or other concerns the app thinks you should know about. I find it useful, since normally I wouldn't know about this unless I read it in the local paper or in a police blotter report online.
These are the updates that Gizmodo says are being pulled from police databases, which again raises concerns about police sharing this information. You'll get alerts of events that have occurred in the last hour, too.
There's also a map feature that I like better than the crime feed. This lets me see, in a three-mile radius around my town, any crime, safety concerns, suspicious activity, unknown incidents or lost pets. I can adjust that default radius down to as little as a quarter-mile.
I can tap into any of these to see the post's video or photo and additional information, like what happened. I've purposely zoomed out so that you can't see my house, but users can zoom in or out and pan around the map. They can also set the time period to see reports in the last 24 hours, week, 14 days or month.
There are some pretty obvious pros and cons to the app. It's super useful if you live in an area with known crime problems. Car break-ins and thefts are really common around me, and I like to know when they happen. I also want to know if a nearby house is broken into.
On the other hand, I don't like the "suspicious" activity reporting. Sure, someone might look out of place, but that doesn't mean they have a criminal record, are about to commit a crime or aren't allowed to be walking around my neighborhood. Yet, this app lets anyone share video and photos with neighbors and, in some cases, police departments. And that creates valid fears of a camera-heavy police surveillance that's, ultimately, facilitated by Amazon.
"We're proud of our partnerships with law enforcement and the opportunities they offer to Neighbors app users," a Ring spokesperson told CNBC in a statement. "Through these partnerships, we are opening the lines of communication between community members and local law enforcement and providing app users with important crime and safety information directly from the official source. We've seen many positive examples of Neighbors users and law enforcement engaging on the app and believe open communication is an important step in building safer, stronger communities."
"Ring customers decide whether to share footage publicly or with law enforcement," a Ring spokesperson added. "As we continue to develop our programs, privacy, security and control will remain extremely important to us, and every decision we make as a company centers around these three pillars."