Surveillance and Inequality

New data analysis of partnerships between Amazon Ring and Police Departments shows that some communities are surveilled at much higher rates than others

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Robert Williams was the first American to be arrested for a crime he did not commit based on the judgement of facial recognition surveillance software. In January 2020, police officers drove up behind Robert as he was parking at his house and blocked in his car. They handcuffed him in front of his wife and two daughters. When they took him to the police station, they showed him two blurry photos of a heavyset man, dressed in black, and wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals cap, standing in front of a watch display. Five watches worth $3,800 were shoplifted. When the detectives asked if that was him in the picture, Robert responded, “No, this isn’t me. You think all Black men look alike?”

Surveillance and the use of facial recognition tools by law enforcement have grown tremendously in recent years. While The New York Times and other technology & law experts believe that Robert’s case is the first of its kind, it will certainly not be the last.

Amazon Ring is one of the many companies that is helping law enforcement increase surveillance on communities. Amazon sells its camera-enable doorbells to homeowners, and then works with police to give them access to the data from all these new cameras in two different ways - (1) police can request the data directly from Ring, or (2) police can send push notifications to Ring owners requesting that they voluntarily share their information with the local police department. Amazon publishes this list of relationships between Ring and local police, but makes it really difficult to understand where they are actually present.

As such, I developed a Python web-scraping tool to identify every single relationship that a US police department has with Amazon Ring to figure out where surveillance is increasing in American communities. 

I found that Police-Ring partnerships are disproportionately in Black neighborhoods. If you live in a county with an above US-average Black population, you are twice as likely to have a Police-Ring partnership surveilling your community.

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1,752 police departments across the country have created formal partnerships with Amazon Ring. The first Ring-Police partnership was announced on March 22, 2018 with the Greenfield Wisconsin Police Department. Since then, police have made 5,932 requests for video surveillance footage to access Ring doorbell data from Amazon. These Ring-Police partnerships are growing every month, but some communities are watched much more closely than others.

Black communities surveilled more

Nearly 60 years ago, the FBI authorized wiretaps for Martin Luther King Jr.’s home and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) offices. 60 years before that, Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in the Supreme Court to keep Black people in separate communities and under close supervision from local law enforcement. Today, Black communities are still surveilled at much higher rates than White communities, leading to increased tensions and criminalization. 

In fact, I found that Police-Ring partnerships are disproportionately in Black communities. The average US county is 9.1% Black - if you live in any county that has more Black residents than that, you will have 5 Ring-Police partnerships in your community. If you live in a county that is below the national average for percent-Black residents, you’ll have 2.5 Ring-Police partnerships.

One single community or county can have multiple Ring-Police partnerships because of the different types of law enforcement divisions. For example, Ring may create a partnership with the county police, the many local police offices, with the sheriff’s office, with the township police, or with a specialty sub-division of a local police department, all within one county.

The numbers get even worse when we look on a per-person basis. The average US-county has 13,000 Black residents, but for counties with a Ring-Police partnership, there are 157,000 Black residents, or 12x the national average. The five US counties with the highest number of Black residents have 120 Ring-Police partnerships, but the five counties with the highest number of White residents have only 40. 

Cook County, Illinois has the most Ring-Police partnerships of any county in America. Cook County also has the most total Black residents of any county in America. Cook County includes Chicago and its Southside and is home to 1.2 million Black Americans. According to Amazon, 71 police departments including the Chicago Police Department, the North Chicago Police Department, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, have created partnerships with Ring in Cook.

Cook county and Chicago have been struggling with police and surveillance for decades, but the surveillance of communities has accelerated in recent years. In 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Black man. In 2018, Officer Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. A few months later, the Chicago Police Department added 30,000 cameras to local streets. A few months after that, the first Ring-Police partnership was established in Cook. Since then, Cook County has added 3 new Ring-Police partnerships every single month.

There is little evidence that Ring reduces crime. Researchers from MIT found that there is little evidence to support Ring’s claim that it reduces crime and the company does not publish data on the subject. Ring denies facial recognition is in the works, yet leaves open the possibility of implementing facial recognition in the future.

Instead, a 2019 Motherboard investigation revealed that Ring exacerbates existing racial injustice within neighborhoods. People of color are disproportionately reported as “suspicious” (even in the neighborhoods they live in) and have their photos uploaded for public comment.

Facial Recognition and Surveillance

Surveillance and facial recognition have created a double-threat in America, as Robert Williams experienced. We are observed constantly, and then we are identified immediately. Today, more than half of all Americans are in a facial recognition database. 75 enforcement agencies across America are allowed to use this information to track you.

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Several cities across America have banned facial recognition due to its untested governance and controls. San Francisco, Boston, and Portland are among dozens of cities that have banned this technology, citing risks of “biases against Black people, women, and older people.” Research from Joy Buolamwini at the MIT Media Lab has shown that facial recognition softwares have error rates of 34% when it coms to identifying darker skinned women, often because the underlying databases that train the algorithms are 77% male and 83% White. The National Institute of Standards Technology (NIST) analyzed 189 facial recognition algorithms from 99 developers using 18.3M images of 8.5M people and found that the algorithms were 10x to 100x more likely to misidentify African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans compared to White faces.

The Path Forward

Courts need to rule on evidentiary standards — Senator Ed Markey has noted that “Ring has no evidentiary standard for law enforcement to request Ring footage from users” and Ring appears to use standards that have no basis in legal standing. For example, Ring currently limits requests to “video recordings only from an area between 0.025 and 0.5 square miles (0.5 square miles is approximately 10 city blocks)” from an event. This seemingly random distance may be wholly inadequate in rural regions or may be too expansive in urban regions, putting people at risk of the “plain view” doctrine. In the meantime, Ring can improve its Informed Consent notices so that when a police request does come to a Ring user, they know that they don’t have to turn over the footage. 

Tech companies need to create better transparency reports — Reports on the types of requests that law enforcement are making will improve transparency into Ring-Police partnerships, thereby supporting greater accountability. Although Ring currently publishes a map of how many data requests it receives from police departments, this information is not detailed enough and is difficult to navigate. Instead, Ring and police departments ought to follow transparency best practices for law enforcement data requests as illustrated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. BJS has outlined 6 categories of statistics that law-enforcement should publish to show how effective their policies are (and whether they actually reduce crime). President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015) recommended that police leaders work to “establish a culture of transparency and accountability in order to build public trust and accountability.” 

The day that Robert Williams was arrested for faulty surveillance and facial recognition, his wife called his employer to say he had a family emergency — it broke his four-year record of perfect attendance. The following day was his 42nd birthday. As Robert sat in the interrogation room, the cops leaned back in their chairs, looked at each, and said, “I guess the computer got it wrong.” 30 hours later, Robert was released on a $1,000 personal bond. He stood outside the Detroit Detention Center in the rain for 30 minutes before his wife could pick him up. His daughter was waiting up for him when he arrived back home at 10pm and ran over to give him a big hug. Robert says that his daughter’s favorite game now is cops and robbers. She runs around the house, accusing her father of stealing things, threatening to lock him up. 

Robert fears that his children have been irreparably scarred by this experience. The way that they see their father now is through the lens that surveillance cameras want us to see him - as a criminal. But he is not. Let’s work to make sure that other families do not suffer from surveillance and inequality in America.

Special thanks to Raina Gandhi and Min Hwang, graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School and Whartonfor their supporting research