Q&A: Cameras, Police, the Dangers of a Constantly Monitored Society

Catherine Crump is the director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley, where she researches the impact of new technology on civil liberties and the justice system. Among many other subject areas, she’s done research on the automatic license plate reader, a device that converts images of license plates into readable text to give the police more accurate location information on the people they’re monitoring. She spoke to California about the technological and legal implications of this device, and the significance of this new third-party surveillance that Ring represents.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you paint a picture of what the police might be able to access in areas where they’re collecting this data? What do all these images and videos add up to?

Catherine Crump: Ring video doorbells record both video and audio, and they’re increasingly popular. One reason is because some police departments, with the help of Amazon, subsidize the cost of installing them, or even incentivize people to install them, not just so they’re looking right out at someone’s doorstep, but also looking more broadly onto the street. What law enforcement can do—what Amazon is providing to law enforcement—is the ability to access this map of where all of these cameras are installed, and then to request footage from people who have installed them.

We’re quickly becoming a society where there is not just a camera on every street corner, but one on every house, recording not just video but also audio. So it’s raising questions about, under what circumstances should the police be able to access that footage? You can certainly see why it’s a potentially useful investigative tool. I think there’s also some concern, though, that people should be able to relax in their own neighborhoods and walk down the street without being concerned that they’re being constantly surveilled—and particularly that the footage is going to end up in the hands of law enforcement agencies.

One of the most radical things about the Ring doorbell is that it records audio by default. And that’s a big deal because right now there are lots of surveillance cameras around, and increasingly on not just street corners but also city buses—and they don’t record audio by default. Ring is really the first mass surveillance technology that records not only what people do but what they might say. And so that alone has the potential to really change people’s expectations of privacy: how much privacy you have not just moving on a public street, which maybe other people would see, but a permanent recording of what you say.

There are a number of states around the country that have these two-party consent eavesdropping statutes, and the idea is that both parties have to agree to record before recording. There’s a tricky and unresolved legal question about whether, in at least some states, installing a Ring doorbell and recording audio violates the statute. And I think Amazon and Ring know this. If you dig deep into their website, there’s language saying, ‘It’s your responsibility—the Ring doorbell owner—to check whether the audio function is incompliant with local rules. By the way, here’s how to turn it off.’

Read the full interview at California Magazine