DIMOND – Crime Fighting at Your Front Door

BY DIANE DIMOND

Nothing is perfect. Can we all agree on that? Especially when we’re talking about all the digital technology that surrounds us these days. But when deciding whether a technological advancement is worthwhile, shouldn’t more weight be given to the amount of good it can do, not to the (SET ITAL) possible (END ITAL) misuse of it?

Case in point: Privacy advocates expressed serious worry recently when it was learned that Ring, one of the nation’s largest home security companies, announced it is now cooperating with more than 400 police departments nationwide and will share videos from customers’ doorbell cameras to help solve crimes. The words “big brother” were uttered more than once.

Let’s all take a breath here and consider, with an open mind, whether this technology is making our lives better (and safer) or getting the better of us.

Doorbell cameras from firms like Google Nest, RemoBell, Ring or ADT have been growing in popularity. They are fairly inexpensive, beginning at just $100 or so, and easy to install, and they give homeowners a videotaped record of anyone who approaches their front door or other areas of their property. These devices have a built-in microphone and allow homeowners to speak to visitors (or would-be criminals) via a cellphone app, even if the owner is thousands of miles away. Some devices also allow the owners to remotely unlock their door so family or friends can enter when they aren’t home. This is part of a modern-day lifestyle for countless Americans.

What these doorbell cameras capture on video can be an obvious crime-fighting tool for law enforcement, another way for police to identify criminals and keep communities safe. In Washington, D.C., recently, investigators were dumbfounded at the random street stabbing of a young woman who was out walking a dog. The fatal incident terrified the neighborhood, but police were able to quickly arrest the suspect thanks to video from a nearby doorbell camera.

Yet those focused on privacy issues are distressed about ever-increasing surveillance in the U.S. Evan Greer with the advocacy group Fight for the Future calls the doorbell cam industry a “business model based in paranoia.” He told The Washington Post, “It’s a privately run surveillance dragnet built outside the democratic process, but they’re marketing it as just another product, just another app.”

Legal types fear that residents with doorbell cameras could be forced to become police informants. Civil rights activists worry the cameras will contribute to racial profiling and community suspicion of minority citizens.

There was a case in Maryland in which a homeowner who lived near a middle school spied two young black youths knocking on her door one late October afternoon. She captured the video, flagged it as suspicious and posted it with this note to the neighbors: “Early trick or treat, or are they up to no good?” The boys were not wearing costumes but were clearly heard several times saying, “Trick or treat.” They were seen peacefully leaving when no one answered the door. The incident may have caused some to think their neighbor was expressing racial bias, but others likely viewed it as kids being kids and no cause for concern.

Before we get too far out into the thought-police weeds here, understand that the trick-or-treat message went to only a few of the homeowner’s neighbors who happened to have the same doorbell camera and the Neighborhood app to go with it. Juxtapose that with how police in D.C. used doorbell video to find and lock up a suspected murderer. Which event should be given more attention? Which suspects caused a larger danger to the public? What if there had been no doorbell video? Would the D.C. stabber have gone unidentified and killed more people?

Also understand that Ring shares customers’ video with police only — I repeat, only — after the homeowners approve of the video release. What’s happening here isn’t unauthorized, arbitrary surveillance. Law enforcement can’t see live streams of video from a homeowner’s doorbell camera. They can only go back and ask permission to see what they hope will be a real-time video record of a crime being committed.

I respect the concern of living in a society where there are too many cameras. But let’s face it; that ship has sailed. Everyone who carries a cellphone has a camera. Nearly every public space is outfitted with security cameras these days. No one should go out feeling they are immune from having their image captured. And that includes the criminal element.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a doorbell camera. My local police department is not part of this new partnership, but you can bet that if I capture a criminal trying to break into my house, my first step will be to call the cops and give them that video.

Rockland County resident Diane Dimond is a journalist, author, and a regular contributing correspondent for the Investigation Discovery channel. To find out more about Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com