Ed Dorini’s house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Sun Valley area of Los Angeles, where he says “people take care of their properties.” Dorini, 64, came to L.A. as an immigrant from Canada in the early 1980s. The home he owns is one he earned with hard work, and he has installed 10 Ring cameras to monitor his property and its various entrances.
He has also found Ring’s companion app, Neighbors, useful. Both Neighbors and Ring are owned by Amazon, and the former is a social platform where Ring doorbell users — and people who join the app independently — can publish posts and footage about things happening in their neighborhood, such as theft or missing pets.
Last year, Dorini wrote two posts with accompanying videos about “illegal dumping" and “anyone recently have a bathroom demoed by someone with this big dump truck. Call me.”
Both of these posts landed in the inbox of 15 officers with the Los Angeles Police Department who had opted in to receive crime alerts posted on Neighbors. Dorini’s post was one of more than 13,000 Neighbors posts that were automatically forwarded to LAPD officers, detectives and sergeants in just over two years, report The Markup and the Los Angeles Times.
Neighbors has built a forum in which private citizens can monitor one another in service of keeping neighborhoods “safe,” as the company puts it.
Safe for whom, and from what? While homeowners may believe their cameras and posts are preventing break-ins and theft, some research has shown that surveillance is a poor deterrent of property crimes.
By trusting their cameras to keep watch for them, users render themselves blind to the ways in which community surveillance breeds paranoia, perpetuates prejudice and and puts people at heightened risk of police or vigilante violence.
Most Neighbors users live in whiter, more affluent areas.
Neighbors is “a continuation of a long history of communities coming together and creating their own surveillance systems that shape who they believe belongs somewhere and who doesn’t belong somewhere,” said Ángel Díaz of the University of Southern California Gould Law School. “And that is something that we have enshrined not only through law enforcement, but through laws around disorderly conduct and things like that.”
The Markup worked with students from the NYCity News Service at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York to perform public records requests.
An analysis of a random sample of Neighbors posts found that more than 30% of the posts the LAPD received did not describe criminal activity, even if users classified them as “crime.” The content of these posts often included behavior residents deemed suspicious, such as someone “checking cars.”
Only posts classified as “crime” were supposed to be forwarded to officers — but this did not always happen. Dorini classified his posts that landed in officers’ inboxes under “safety.”
As of September, 2,604 U.S. police departments have forged partnerships similar to LAPD’s with Amazon’s Ring network. It’s part of a marketing strategy at Ring that targets not just retail customers but also law enforcement agencies, without always making the relationship between police and Ring clear to consumers.