Amazon-owned home security company Ring is pursuing contracts with police departments in the United States that would grant it direct access to real-time emergency dispatch data, Gizmodo has learned.
The California-based company is seeking police departments’ permission to tap into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) feeds used to automate and improve decisions made by emergency dispatch personnel and cut down on police response times. Ring has requested access to the data streams so it can curate “crime news” posts for its “neighbourhood watch” app, Neighbours.
“In an effort to provide relevant and reliable crime and safety information to our neighbours, one important source we rely on is CAD,” the company told Gizmodo.
Neighbours is an app through which users can share suspicions about alleged criminal activity in their neighbourhoods. They can also post video captured by their Ring doorbell cameras, if they have one. Using Neighbours does not require a Ring device, however.
An internal police email dated April 2019, obtained by Gizmodo last week via a public records request, stated that more than 225 U.S. police departments have entered into partnerships with Ring. (The company has declined to confirm that, or provide the actual number.) Doing so grants the departments access to a Neighbours “law enforcement portal” through which police can request access to videos captured by Ring doorbell cameras.
Ring says it does not provide the personal information of its customers to the authorities without consent. To wit, the company has positioned itself as an intermediary through which police requests access to citizen-captured surveillance footage. When police make a request, they don’t know who receives it, Ring says, until a user chooses to share their video. Users are also prompted with the option to review their footage before turning it over.
One of Ring’s main selling points to police is that it can be used for “community building.” Police partnering with Ring are encouraged to conversate with Neighbours users, who are encouraged in turn to share “tips” about activity in their neighbourhoods. Police can follow posts and receive updates via email as new tips (or complaints) roll in.
But how often is one the victims of a crime in their own neighbourhood? Likely not enough to stay engaged with the app for too long. Ring’s solution is to push out alerts about alleged criminal activity reported nearby in real-time, according to company documents obtained by Gizmodo. Hiring people to monitor police scanners all day, however, is presumably too costly and inefficient. To pull off this trick, Ring needs something better: direct access to raw police dispatch data.
As Gizmodo previously reported, Ring sought to a hire a managing editor to oversee a “team of news editors” earlier this year that could “deliver breaking crime news alerts,” according to a job posting on Amazon, which purchased the company more than a year ago for around $US1 ($1.4) billion. Emails obtained via public records requests provide new insight into what this “news team” might be spending their time doing.
Through its police partnerships, Ring has requested access to CAD, which includes information provided voluntarily by emergency callers, among other types of data automatically collected. CAD data is typically compromised of details such as names, phone numbers, addresses, medical conditions and potentially other types of personally identifiable information, including, in some instances, GPS coordinates.
In an email Thursday, Ring confirmed it does receive location information, including precise addresses from CAD data, which it does not publish to its app. It denied receiving other forms of personal information.
According to internal documents, police CAD data is received by Ring’s “Neighbours News team” and is then reformatted before being posted on Neighbours in the form of an “alert” to users in the vicinity of the alleged incident.
“Our in-house news team monitors every alert that comes through our system and determines if they are relevant crime & safety incidents to send out to impacted neighbourhoods,” Ring says in one a document provided exclusively to law enforcement officials. The document states that Ring’s team only posts alerts for eight different crimes: burglary, vehicle break-in and theft, robbery, shots fired, shootings, stabbing, hostage, and arson.
A Ring spokesperson said in an email that CAD data is also used to issue alerts for residential, commercial, and structure fires, as well as explosions, as seen in the screenshot provided below:
The document given to U.S. police also includes a list of more than 60 crimes for which Ring will not alert its users. Among “many more,” these include assault, rape, theft, bomb threats, school lockdowns, trespassing, vandalism, domestic disputes and “dead person.”
“We use an API call, and ingest applicable categories and data points into our content management system, and all incidents will be edited and reviewed before being sent to our users,” the company told police in its marketing material.
It also states that the incidents “must be timely.” Ring will not issue alerts for crimes if they’re more than an hour old. “The incident must be useful for the community at large,” the materials say. “If it only affects an individual and does not pose as an active threat to others, we will not post.”
Neighbours is not the only app seeking access to CAD. Another, called PulsePoint, which is run by a San Francisco-based nonprofit, relies on real-time access to emergency dispatch data. Whenever an emergency call is placed about someone going into cardiac arrest, it issues alerts to people who are CPR certified nearby. It also pinpoints the locations of AEDs (automated external defibrillators). CPR volunteers are alerted to cardiac emergencies at the same rate as police, upping the chance that victims receive assistance in time to save their lives.
While some U.S. police departments do publish real-time police dispatch information — the Dallas Police Department, for example, does so on its website, which is in turn used to power this unofficial Twitter feed — some of the information is considered sensitive. Earlier this year, when the Seattle Police Department sought access to CAD software, it triggered a requirement for a privacy impact report under a city ordinance concerning the acquisition of any “surveillance technologies.”
According to the definition adopted by the city, a technology has surveillance capability if it can be used “to collect, capture, transmit, or record data that could be used to surveil, regardless of whether the data is obscured, de-identified, or anonymised before or after collection and regardless of whether technology might be used to obscure or prevent the capturing of certain views or types of information.”
Some CAD systems, such as those marketed by Central Square Technologies (formerly known as TriTech), are used to locate cellular callers by sending text messages that force the return of a phone-location service tracking report. CAD systems also pull in data automatically from phone companies, including ALI information — Automatic Location Identification — which is displayed to dispatch personnel whenever an emergency call is placed. CAD uses these details, along with manually entered information provided by callers to make fast initial decisions about which police units and first responders should respond to which calls.
According to the Ring documents acquired by Gizmodo, the direct address, or latitude and longitude, of emergency callers is among the information the Neighbours app requires police to provide, along with the time of the incident, and the category and description of the alleged crime.
Ring said that while it uses CAD data to generate its “News Alerts,” sensitive details, such as the direct address of an incident or the number of police units responding, are never included.
Additional reporting by Mario Aguilar.