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Neighborhood watch app | The initiative of police forces called into question



The New York police, the largest police force in the United States, recently joined an Amazon platform to help with their investigations. But critics fear the technology could lead to racial profiling.

(New York) New York police already rely on a high-tech toolkit including facial recognition software, drones and mobile X-ray vans. They have joined Neighbors, a public neighborhood watch platform owned by Amazon’s Ring, where video doorbell owners can post clips and where police stations can ask city residents for help in their investigations.

Announcing the collaboration with Ring, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said in a statement that “the ability to interact with New Yorkers online — often in real time — adds to comprehensive crime-fighting strategies already employed by the NYPD.

But the initiative’s massive growth — more than 2,000 public safety agencies nationwide have signed up, including in Los Angeles and Chicago — has alarmed digital rights and privacy advocates who say the platform could lead excessive police surveillance, a burden historically borne by non-whites.


The public neighborhood watch platform Neighbors

In New York City, home to the nation’s largest and most digitally sophisticated police force, this initiative represents a dramatic expansion of the police surveillance apparatus. Here’s what to know about this partnership, along with some of the top questions and concerns.

What can the police see — and hear —?

The mobile app Neighbors, which was previously restricted to Ring owners but became freely available to the public in 2018, allows users to message and chat anonymously on its platform. The feeds consist largely of video clips of stolen packages and property damage captured by Ring cameras, with theft, fire and crime alerts from Ring’s “information team” inserted in between. .

Since November 2, the 77 police stations in the city can consult these public feeds and conversations between neighbors, and request images and information. In contrast, the police do not have the ability to view or operate the Ring cameras which record in real time.

Messages from law enforcement, titled “requests for assistance,” must relate to a specific investigation and are reviewed by a Ring moderator before appearing on the app.

A few city police stations have already started using Neighbors. The 83e Neighborhood Station posted two requests for assistance seeking information about an attempted theft on November 14 and a reported electric bicycle theft on November 9. The 77e neighborhood station has made only one request so far, for information on an attack that occurred on November 10.

Users can ignore or even block these inquiries in their feed. But police can still obtain private footage through a court order or directly from Ring. Such requests to the company are only for life-threatening emergencies and are routinely denied, said Ring spokeswoman Mai Nguyen.

Ring provided footage to law enforcement in at least 11 cases through July this year, according to Amazon.

Are digital rights under threat?

With more than 10 million Ring cameras sold, the device’s ubiquity has alarmed groups and digital privacy officials, who say millions of Americans are being recorded daily without their knowledge.

Matthew Guariglia, a political analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said the ability for police to view the messages, even if they are public, was “puzzling” because members can no longer use the platform as a way to avoid involving the police.

Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts said he was “troubled” by Ring’s “invasive data collection and problematic engagement with law enforcement” in a letter he sent to Ring in June, signaling the device’s ability to record audible conversations up to a distance of six meters. The doorbell’s sensors can scan up to three meters, according to the company’s website.

The right of the public to assemble, to move and to converse without being followed is in danger.

Edward J. Markey, Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, in his letter asking Amazon to remove Ring’s ability to record sounds

In a response to the senator the following month, Amazon refused to disable sound recordings on Ring doorbells.

How will the police use the data they collect?

Police have long asked for the public’s help in identifying suspects caught on surveillance cameras in the cases they investigate, whether property crimes, assaults or homicides, and release often videos and photos of suspects in social media and press releases. A police department spokesperson said the platform would serve as an extension of the agency’s existing information-gathering methods.

Images and footage collected by the police through Neighbors could then be tapped by facial recognition software, which police have been using since 2011 to track down suspects.

But the use of facial recognition software is controversial. Studies have shown this technology to be inaccurate, especially when it comes to identifying non-white women. And it is possible that these mismatches are then forwarded to other agencies, such as immigration services.


Eric Adams, Mayor of New York

Even as civil liberties groups have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of technology such as facial recognition, and other cities have banned its use by law enforcement, the mayor Eric Adams hinted that he wanted to expand the program.

What are activists’ concerns about racial profiling and police surveillance?

Three years ago, Vice News spent two months tracking app content in an 5-mile area covering lower Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and parts of Queens and Hoboken, New Jersey. . Vice News found that non-white people made up the majority of posts labeled as “suspicious activity.”

This echoes a concerning pattern of behavior that has plagued other neighborhood watch platforms, like Nextdoor and Citizen, and which civil liberties groups say could give the false impression of rising crime and drive racial profiling and wrongful arrests.

“The New York City Police are in the process of issuing a warrant to users of the app,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, of Neighbors. “Crowd surveillance and suspicion, such as that taking place on the app Neighbors of Ring, are influenced by users’ racial and other biases. »

The original version of this text was published in the New York Times.

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  • 15,000
    In a 2021 report, Amnesty International explained that police could view footage from more than 15,000 CCTV cameras installed in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods alone, with a disproportionate number in non-white communities.

    Source : The New York Times

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