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Home-security cameras have become a fruitful resource for law enforcement — and a fatal risk

Doorbell cameras have become a powerful tool for police investigators. But law enforcement officials are grappling with how the systems can ‘be used against us.’

Two FBI agents were killed while serving a search warrant at an apartment complex in Sunrise, Fla. Law enforcement individuals said the gunman opened fire after seeing agents approach through a doorbell camera. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP)

Police forces across the U.S. made more than 20,000 requests last year for footage captured by Ring’s “video doorbells” and other home-security cameras, underscoring how the rapid growth of inexpensive home surveillance technology has given American law enforcement an unprecedented ability to monitor neighborhood life.

The requests reflect the Amazon-owned company’s policy of allowing police and fire departments to request video from camera owners who live near the scene of a crime. Some officers have celebrated the digital informants for helping them gather valuable evidence and watch over the public at large.

But the proliferation of the kind of surveillance cameras once limited primarily to airports, banks and convenience stores also has meant millions of unsuspecting people — including camera owners’ neighbors, peaceful protesters and anyone else walking down a residential block — are being recorded without their knowledge or consent.

Some of those worries are beginning to come from the law-enforcement officials themselves. A South Florida gunman who authorities said killed two FBI agents at an apartment complex last month, during one of the deadliest days in bureau history, had seen them approaching his door through a home camera before opening fire.

The always-on cameras have “given us a profound amount of evidence for crimes that used to fall by the wayside,” said Michael D’Angelo, a security consultant and retired captain for the South Miami police. “But we didn’t put as much thought into how these systems could be used against us.”

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The consumer acceptance of the new generation of cheap and easy-to-use home-security cameras has brought surveillance technology to American neighborhoods on a massive scale. While the precise number of devices is unknown, the number of Internet-connected cameras from Ring, Google Nest and other video doorbell companies most likely totals in the millions.

The motion-detecting cameras — installed indoors or around a home via doorbell, peephole or “stick-up cam” — can automatically record and alert their owners when someone passes within their view. The owners can watch and listen in real time, or they can save the footage for later viewing or sharing: Ring even has its own social network, Neighbors, that allows people to post clips of suspicious strangers and lost pets.

More than 2,000 police and fire departments across the U.S. have cooperative agreements with Ring system, up from 60 in 2018, a Washington Post analysis of company data shows. The pace of new sign-ups has rapidly accelerated, to two new “partnerships” a day.

Those partnerships allow officers to ask all camera owners within half a square mile of a crime scene to share video that could help with the case, and agencies have been seeking out video at a striking rate. Police in Milwaukee, for example, now send Ring video requests for every homicide and nonfatal shooting in the city; last year officers there requested video more than 800 times, police spokesman Sgt. Efrain Cornejo said.

It’s become “like social media,” Cornejo said. “People will receive a message, they’ll all look, and you hope to get back some” response.

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Ring’s deals with law enforcement are active in every state except Montana and Wyoming, and they cover every kind of American community, from backcountry towns to urban sprawl.

In December, the police department in Fairbanks, Alaska, posted a Ring video to its Facebook page of a “criminal mischief” suspect spotted outside a snow-covered church. A few weeks later, and 4,000 miles away, a sheriff’s office in the Florida Keys did the same with a Ring video of a man with a “somewhat protruding stomach” spotted spray-painting a swastika onto a Key Largo boat.

Ring spokeswoman Yassi Shahmiri said the video-request tool is “designed to protect a user’s privacy and increase transparency when public safety asks the community for help.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

But privacy advocates say the systems also threaten to usher in a new age of excessive police surveillance. Los Angeles detectives who said they were investigating sporadic outbursts of physical injuries and property crimes requested videos from Ring owners in view of the city’s Black Lives Matter protests last summer, according to copies of the request discovered last month by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group.

The request could have netted video of suspected criminals. But it also could have brought in footage of peaceful demonstrators marching against police abuse, said EFF analyst Matthew Guariglia, who called it a chilling reminder of how the cameras could track Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.

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The systems, Guariglia added, highlight the growing way public authorities are capitalizing on privately run camera networks and databases. Homeowners, he said, probably would object if police officers installed a high-resolution camera aimed at their front door. But they may not object when their neighbors do the installing, even though the end result is the same; in fact, many people pay to do it themselves.

“When we let consumers build a large-scale surveillance network that police then get to request from at will, we are essentially letting police skirt the checks and balances they’d otherwise have to address if they wanted to build a CCTV [closed-circuit television] network for the government,” Guariglia said.

Doorbells are gaining cameras for security and catching porch pirates. The Post's Geoff Fowler goes over security camera etiquette you may not have considered. (Video: Jhaan Elker, Geoffrey Fowler/The Washington Post)

Ring prohibits video requests for protests and other lawful activities, Shahmiri said, but the LAPD’s request was acceptable because it said it was aimed at identifying people responsible for physical injuries and property crimes. It was unknown if the requests led to any prosecutions; the LAPD declined to comment.

Proponents of the technology have argued the requests are no different from the traditional police practice of asking people to voluntarily share information that could help solve a crime. Some police and community groups have even given the cameras out free, believing they could help deter crime or give officers the upper hand.

Ring emails its police video requests directly to the camera owners, including the officer’s name and details of the incident, and investigators can ask for up to 12 hours of footage. Camera owners can ignore the requests, but officers said many are eager to comply. Once the video is shared, law enforcement agencies can keep the footage forever and use or share it however they would like.

“The neighborhood survey is the same. It’s the technology’s that’s more advanced,” said Eddy Durkin, a spokesman for the Tampa Police Department, which made 190 video requests in the last three months of 2020. “People can send us a video right then and there, as opposed to 10 years ago, when you were relying on someone’s memory.”

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Home-security cameras are nothing new, but the newer systems’ ease of use and low prices — Ring’s doorbells start at $59 and many of its rivals are priced under $200 — have greatly expanded a market once dominated by affluent buyers and camera hobbyists.

Ring has declined to provide sales figures, but the company has offered hints of its vast cross-country footprint: In November 2019, the company said its doorbells in the U.S. were chimed 2.5 million times on an average day and 15 million times on Halloween.

Dan Calacci, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab who has analyzed usage of Ring’s Neighbors app, estimated that more than 3 million Ring cameras are now online nationwide. (For comparison: London, one of the most surveilled cities in the world, has an estimated 600,000 CCTV cameras.)

The competition among tech giants has also helped break ground on the cameras’ surveillance capabilities. Google, whose Nest subsidiary sells a range of indoor and outdoor home-security cameras, spent $450 million in August to acquire a 6 percent stake of the home-security giant ADT, saying the deal would help “create the next generation of smart home security offerings.”

Ring said last week that its newest model boasts radar sensors that can track a person’s movement, upgraded cameras that can record visitors from “head to toe,” and improved “3D Motion Detection” that can spot someone from up to 30 feet away. The company has also advertised an unreleased camera drone, the Always Home Cam, that could fly itself around indoors.

For now, Ring stands alone among the tech giants willing to help police get customers’ home video. A spokesman for Google Nest told The Washington Post on Monday that the company had “no plans to pursue this kind of partnership.”

Police officers said they have grown more comfortable with asking for video in the years since cellphone cameras became an omnipresent part of modern life. But the home cameras add an additional benefit, because they stay on and watching 24 hours a day, and because owners don’t always even know the full extent of what they’ve caught.

Several officers said looking for Ring doorbells and other popular home-security cameras has become a routine part of canvassing a neighborhood after a crime: If they see one, they’ll ask the owner to cue up what the camera saw. For crimes like package thefts and car burglaries that traditionally left officers with little evidence, the videos can offer a helpful lead or even identify the suspect outright.

At 8:13 p.m., a security camera captures the suspect in Rumsey Court wearing a light-colored sweatshirt. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

But many departments are also using the system for their most serious crimes. Investigators stopped by houses with doorbell cameras while searching for clues to who had planted two pipe bombs near the U.S. Capitol in the hours before it was stormed Jan. 6 by an angry mob. The FBI, which said its agents were “using every tool in our toolbox,” later shared photos and videos of the suspect captured by a nearby homeowner’s security camera purchased from Arlo, whose Internet-connected cameras start at under $200.

The gun battle last month in Sunrise, Fla., however, revealed how home-security cameras could be used to give violent criminals the upper hand. Two FBI agents were killed and three others were wounded while attempting to serve a search warrant of a man facing investigation in a case involving crimes against children.

The FBI said the suspect, David Lee Huber, opened fire when the agents approached the door before killing himself. The FBI declined to say what kind of camera was used or offer further comment, but law enforcement individuals told the Miami Herald that the suspect used a doorbell camera in the ambush.

Chuck Wexler, the executive director for Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit that advises police agencies, said home-security cameras have been a fruitful source of video for officers who need as much help investigating a crime as they can get. But the shooting, he said, offered a major “wake-up call” for officers in the field.

“What happened there will influence police departments, in that they’ve got another thing to worry about,” Wexler said. “Just the act of knocking on someone’s door can be dangerous. They’re trained how to do that. But this introduces another cautionary note for how that technology can have unintended consequences.”

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Federal law enforcement officials have raised concerns before about the potential for exactly this kind of risk. A leaked FBI bulletin from 2019, first reported by the Intercept, stated that doorbell cameras and other Internet-connected monitoring devices could endanger agents by alerting suspects to their presence, capturing images of their faces and posing “a risk to their present and future safety.”

Agents in New Orleans said in another FBI “tradecraft alert” that they had been stymied by a suspect with a doorbell camera who “was able to see and hear everything happening at his residence” when they attempted to execute a search.

Some officials have worked to take matters into their own hands. After the FBI shooting, a writer in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services urged first responders to block the lenses of doorbell cameras with sticky electrode pads when attending to calls related to mental health, domestic violence or other threats.

D’Angelo, the retired South Miami police captain, said the recent FBI killings in Florida should spur police to more often use WiFi jammers to knock out the Internet at homes where a doorbell camera could give away their movements.

“That’s got to be something that is part of the protocol now when doing reconnaissance,” he said. “Some countermeasure has to be built in so we can defeat these devices.”

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Camera owners have said they love the reassurance and the thrill they get from watching people in and around their home, and some have credited the systems with helping them catch package-stealing “porch pirates” or keep an eye on passersby.

But the cameras have also been targeted by hackers who have watched people's live video and scared their owners by shouting through the systems' speakers. Ring said last year that it had also investigated and fired several employees for abusing their access and improperly viewing people's videos.

A video taken by a Ring camera at the LeMay family home in Mississippi on Dec. 4., caught the chilling exchange between a hacker and their daughter. (Video: Ashley LeMay)

For people who aren’t police officers, the effects of all that neighborhood surveillance has left a more subtle impact. Lesley Miller, a mother in Goleta, Calif., who is home-schooling three young children during the pandemic, let them play in the grassy areas around their townhouse community, believing the outside time was good for their health while everything is shut down.

But she was surprised when a Ring video was posted to her neighborhood Facebook group showing her 7-year-old son throwing a foam volleyball at a neighbor’s security camera. (He says he was trying to throw it over the roof.)

She marched him over to the neighbor’s door, where they rang the Ring doorbell and left an apology letter when no one answered. But more than 70 people had already watched the video and formed their own opinions, with some commenting about how the boy should be punished. One neighbor later threatened to call the police for “irresponsible parenting.”

She said she was frustrated that her son’s little goof had been posted publicly, without her knowing, in a video branding him a criminal: How would her neighbors treat him the next time he went out to play? And she worried that the cameras were amplifying people’s paranoia, making them more likely to be suspicious of neighbors they only see through a video screen.

She sat her son down for a conversation she had hoped could wait until he was much older: When he is outside, she told him, he is often under constant watch.

“Every time you ride your bike down this block, there are probably 50 cameras that watch you going past,” she told him. “If you make a bad choice, those cameras will catch you.”

She hated that the cameras were part of his motivation, but she worried about what the next potential recording could bring.

“I want him to make good choices because he cares about the people who live in those homes, not because he’s afraid of being punished,” she said. “But there is very little grace for mistakes when things are caught on camera.”

Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.