Pharr police partners with firm offering cameras for doorbells

PHARR — Hundreds of police departments across the country have formed video-sharing partnerships with the doorbell-camera company Ring, hoping to enhance what the company has called the nation’s “new neighborhood watch.”

The partnerships permit police to request video recorded by homeowners’ cameras pertaining to a specific incident or case. Officers do not receive live video feeds and homeowners can decline the requests.

This summer, the Washington Post revealed Ring’s partnership with 400 police departments across the nation, leading to questions about privacy and surveillance, as giant technology companies continue various methods of collecting user data.

“This is not a Big Brother situation or anything like that,” said Police Chief Jose A. Luengo of Pharr, where city commissioners this week voted to forge the partnership with Ring, which was bought by Amazon in 2018 for more than $800 million.

On Tuesday, the day after Pharr formally authorized the partnership, more than 30 human rights organizations, including RAICES, the Center for Human Rights and Privacy and the National Immigration Law Center, published a joint letter to lawmakers asking to end the local police partnerships with Ring.

“These partnerships pose a serious threat to civil rights and liberties, especially for black and brown communities already targeted and surveilled by law enforcement,” the letter said, adding that the partnerships turn “police departments into marketing agencies and police officers into salespeople for Amazon.”

“With no oversight no oversight and accountability, Amazon’s technology creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely,” the letter said. “In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI.”

There are various federal agencies — U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations — that work regularly in Pharr and other cities on the southern border with Mexico, and the local police departments and sheriff’s offices in South Texas often work in cooperation with those federal agencies.

Would Pharr share the Ring data with them?

“If there’s information we can share with our law enforcement partners to keep our community safe?” Luengo said. “Yeah, I think that’d be great.”

The residents who have a Ring doorbell — Luengo said he didn’t know how many there were in Pharr — have to authorize the data to be shared with Pharr police, he said.

Privacy advocates have also raised concerns about smart-doorbell companies like Ring and others that users operate through mobile apps inspiring more socializing about crime, even if crime rates are not rising. Neighbors, Ring’s partner app where users can post local crimes, discuss suspicious activity and share videos from their Ring cameras.

“To that end, we call on mayors and city councils to require police departments to cancel any and all existing Amazon Ring partnerships, and to pass surveillance oversight ordinances that will deter police departments from entering into such agreements in the future,” said the joint letter that was published this week. “We further call on Congress to investigate Ring’s practices and demand more transparency from the company.”

But Pharr police does not see it that way. The Ring partnership is an enhanced policing tactic that could help the authorities keep communities safe.

“We’re trying to innovate,” Luengo said. “It’s a new age.”