Opinion | Criminal Justice

Police use of Ring doorbell cameras — poor ethics or public good?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Amazon's doorbell company, Ring, recently disclosed it has established relationships with more than 400 law enforcement agencies across the country to share video footage from customers' doorbell cameras to help solve crimes. Ring and these agencies tout the partnerships as serving the public good by keeping neighborhoods safe, but do the benefits of these types of relationships outweigh the ethical concerns inherent in them - namely, sharing customer information without permission?

Of course, this isn't the first time law enforcement has sought individuals' data from tech companies. Just a few years ago, the FBI demanded that Apple create software to unlock an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters responsible for the deaths of 14 people at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif.  Apple declined the FBI's demands, citing concerns about the security of its customers and the far-reaching societal implications of acceding to such a demand from law enforcement.

Earlier this year, consumer genetic testing company FamilyTreeDNA confirmed it had given the FBI access to its customers' genetic profiles, just after police apprehended a suspect they believe to be the infamous "Golden State Killer," whose DNA was found in a similar DNA database called GEDmatch. 

While providing law enforcement access to the oceans of personal data collected and maintained by tech companies certainly can be helpful in preventing or solving certain crimes, it begs the question: What are we giving up for this public good?

A significant underpinning of our free society is the notion of individual liberty. In ethical terms, we talk of individual autonomy, or the right of self-determination. In other words, an individual has the moral right to freedom, independence and to act as one pleases (within limits, of course). We all have a moral duty to respect the autonomy of individuals who haven't forfeited that right under society's rules or laws.

In considering the Amazon Ring saga, individual autonomy comes to the forefront. First, Ring has a moral duty to respect the autonomy of its customers. Before it collects, retains or shares the personal data of customers (including doorbell video footage), it has an ethical obligation to disclose to the individual what it will do with this personal information. It must make that disclosure in a manner that affords the customer the ability to understand Ring's intended actions. In addition, it must provide the customer with the ability to choose freely whether to allow access to personal data.  

According to Ring, customers can choose to share video footage publicly, including via upload to Ring's social media app Neighbors. However, in order to share nonpublic video footage with law enforcement, customers receive a notification of law enforcement's request and must affirmatively "click" to approve the sharing. Assuming that controls such as these are in place and followed, Amazon Ring appears to be respecting the individual autonomy of its customers.

But what about those customers? Are they respecting the autonomy of the people who come within the scope of their doorbell cameras? Unfortunately, many times they aren't. The footage from doorbell cameras often encompasses more than the customer's doorstep, recording large swaths of personal - and even public - property. Individuals traveling on those properties have little idea that they are being recorded, let alone have an opportunity to consent to such recording. To respect the autonomy of these individuals, Amazon Ring customers should ensure that their doorbell cameras monitor only their own property and tell law-abiding visitors that they are subject to video surveillance while on their property.

The actions of law enforcement deserve special examination, because law enforcement is an arm of the government. Government surveillance of citizens carries with it enormous ethical and constitutional concerns. Surveillance regimes by the government are the subject of much public scrutiny, discourse and debate. 

For example, there has been much debate about the placement of cameras on traffic signals in order to catch motorists who run red lights. Given concern about government surveillance, more than a dozen states have banned the use of photo cameras. So, when government, through its law enforcement agencies, works with private companies to set up a quasi-governmental surveillance network to obtain otherwise unobtainable video footage of citizens, it certainly appears to be an "end around" the controls our society has on governmental power - controls such as transparency, public discourse and scrutiny of governmental activities.

To encourage the purchase of its doorbell, Amazon Ring markets its products largely by playing to emotional fears about being a victim of crime in our very neighborhoods. Given that law enforcement statistics show that crime actually has been declining for some time, appealing to these fears is ethically suspect. Of course, much marketing in our society relies upon subtle manipulation to convince a potential customer to buy a product or service. However, if marketing tactics manipulate potential customers in a way that ensures they succumb to particular vulnerabilities, or if such tactics actually employ deception, companies are prohibiting individuals from exercising their freedom of choice - thereby infringing on their autonomy.

Proponents of Amazon Ring and its Neighbors app, where customers can upload doorbell videos and tag individuals as "suspicious," contend this is essentially the evolution of Neighborhood Watch programs that have been around for decades; citizens assisting police to apprehend criminals in neighborhoods certainly is not new. From claims of racial profiling, to the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, the pros and cons of these programs have been the subject of debate. 

However, it is absolutely imperative for society to discuss the overarching ramifications of relationships between law enforcement and tech companies for the purpose of access and use of individuals' data. Does the prevention of the relatively few instances of harm to individuals and the apprehension of criminal suspects outweigh the potential harm that results from the number of "false positives" and the loss of individual liberty, freedom or autonomy? Or, in ethical terms, does the moral good outweigh the moral bad?

Professor Robert Föehl is executive in residence of business law and ethics in the College of Business at Ohio University, where he teaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including the Online Master of Business Administration program. He previously served as Target's first director of corporate compliance and ethics, and has nearly 25 years of corporate law experience, including experience as a chief legal officer. Follow him on Twitter @ProfFoehl and @ohiou.

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