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Put A Ring On It: Columbus Police Navigate Privacy Concerns With Smart Doorbells

Mike Pucillo
Nick Evans
Mike Pucillo

Mike Pucillo lives in Olde Towne East, and he has three Ring doorbells: one on his front door, his back door and the garage. He likes having a way to check in when he’s gone.

“I had one person come up there looking for packages, and as soon as they saw it, they turned around and walked out,” Pucillo says, snapping his fingers. “But as far as me feeling like do I feel safe, do I not feel safe—for me it’s just like kind of a security blanket.”

With Ring’s Neighbors app, Pucillo can share footage and see what else is going on in his neighborhood. Columbus Police can see what’s happening, too.

On front porches, smart doorbells like the ones Pucillo uses are becoming more and more common. The camera-equipped devices offer a number of benefits, including allowing residents to see packages arrive and talk to people at the door with their smartphones. But Ring, now owned by Amazon, is pushing the camera network as a tool for police and for some, that raises privacy concerns.

The partnership between the Columbus Division of Police and Ring started with an email in January of last year. Officer Greg Colarich reached out to the company asking if there was any way Ring could "allow customers to easily share video or voluntarily grant access" to law enforcement. The company got back to him the following day, and over the next year Ring and the division negotiated a partnership.

Colarich shows me how Ring works using police headquarters as an example. On a computer screen, he sees a map of the division’s jurisdiction highlighted with gaps for other departments like Worthington or Upper Arlington.

“So our address here is 120 Marconi,” he explains. “I would go in and I would type in the address here, I would put in the case number, we’re just going to use an arbitrary number here.”

Officers can target the place where an incident occurred and then request footage from users in that area.

“Now this is what they would see,” Colarich says, showing me a draft of the message users receive. “They can say 'share your Ring videos.' They can also preview to see what was on there before they would share. And then if they accept, the video would come into our portal. If they don’t, we wouldn’t know the difference.”

Colarich emphasizes police are not able to view a live feed from a users’ doorbell.

The Amazon-owned doorbell camera company Ring has raised concerns over its partnership with local police departments around the country.
Credit Jessica Hill / Associated Press
Associated Press
The Amazon-owned doorbell camera company Ring has raised concerns over its partnership with local police departments around the country.

Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, still worries about the precedent Ring sets.

“So essentially what we’ve created is a large scale CCTV network that police have access to with one click if you allow them,” he says.

Guariglia is also concerned police will sidestep the homeowner approval process and issue a warrant straight to Amazon. In an email, a Ring spokesman acknowledges the company will turn over footage in response to a warrant, but that it will object if it determines the demand is overbroad, inappropriate or vague.

Guariglia and others have also raised concerns about Ring working with police departments to offer subsidies to customers. In public records obtained by WOSU, an initial draft agreement contained just such a provision. Ring offered up to $50,000 in matching funds to provide Columbus residents a $100 discount on its doorbells.

That provision was quickly dropped, but Columbus Police did accept a donation of 90 doorbells in April. It also receives a free doorbell for every 20 people who join Ring’s Neighbors app through a Columbus Police link.

Guariglia argues smart doorbell users may not understand the bounds of the relationship.

“That changes over time. The type of technology that gets put on your Ring system changes over time,” he says. “And if the nature of the relationship changed tomorrow—if the police and Ring signed an updated agreement tomorrow—would you know about it?”

If anything, it seems the division was worried it may be getting too close to Ring. In an October email, Colarich explained removing elements of the agreement because they might appear to be an endorsement of the company.

Back in Old Towne East, Pucillo sees his smart doorbells as an insurance policy in case something goes wrong. While he understands the concerns about privacy, he doesn’t mind the police partnership so long as users control their content.

“If you’re not doing anything wrong why is that big of a deal,” he says. “I know some people would probably blow up if I said that, but I think if it can help us be a safer area, then I’m O.K. with them coming to us and asking for it. I’m not O.K. with them just taking it.”

Although Columbus Police don’t have a way of tracking how often they’re using Ring to assist in an investigation, at least anecdotally, they say it’s been successful in helping identify suspects.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.