Ring doorbell partnerships trigger privacy concerns

Wisconsin police partner up for added surveillance

Dan Thompson started using a Ring Doorbell at his Madison home when his wife opened an in-home day care business a few years ago. The software engineer has always been a fan of high-tech home gadgets, but this also seemed to have a purpose.

“Not that I think I’m in a risky area or anything, but it’s peace of mind,” Thompson said. “It’s kinda neat to know when something’s in front of my house.”

He bought the device before Amazon purchased Ring in 2018. Thompson said he noticed things started to change after the giant online retailer added the Ring Neighbors App for customers after the acquisition. The app essentially gives users the ability to join a social network with other Ring users, where they can share content.

“I was uncertain as to where they were going with that,” Thompson said. “But then it became pretty clear that Ring was looking to become a social neighborhood watch type of thing.”

In recent months, several Wisconsin law enforcement agencies have noticed just how useful the application can be when trying to curb residential crimes. Many have partnered with Ring to use the Neighbors App, giving agencies access to what is basically a surveillance network at the front doors of residents all over the country. The partnerships gave pause to legal experts and privacy advocates around the country, who were concerned that Big Brother was watching a little too closely.

Dan Thompson took notice.

“For them to have unfettered access would be crazy,” said Thompson, who started reading some inaccurate articles from around the country that indicated that police could just obtain any footage they wanted, that was shared on the Neighbors App. “But when I was researching these articles I made sure the only times where Ring would ever share my video is when I say they can, or if they have a legal obligation to provide it to some agency through some legal order.”

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said residents shouldn’t be concerned about the use of their Ring Doorbells by his agency, and called it just another tool to help keep residents safe and neighborhoods crime free.

“Our whole purpose is to partner with community members that have access to this type of data in hopes of solving crimes that have victimized those individuals or their neighbors,” Mahoney said.

He said the Dane County Sheriff’s Office will never push a customer to share their video if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

“I don’t foresee a case in which a homeowner that didn’t want us to have access to their video, that we would try to circumvent that,” Mahoney said.

In recent months, the Beloit Police Department joined the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, and police departments in Green Bay, DePere and Milwaukee all started partnering with Ring to add to their network of surveillance. There are now roughly 400 law enforcement agencies nationwide in the network.

Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain told News 3 Now the department is signing on with the program, though the partnership is not quite up and running yet.

“We have found video from a variety of sources is an important tool for keeping our community safe,” DeSpain said. “Having an identified pool of homeowners with Ring technology, all wanting to work with police to make Madison an even safer place, is a win-win.”

For Dan Thompson, that little peace of mind at his front door goes a long way.

“They wouldn’t see much excitement around my house anyway,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to give up all my privacy, but knowing I can control what goes out, for me, the peace of mind is worth having it.”

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