As more Americans install video doorbells, and even home security cameras, police departments are increasingly asking for homeowners’ videos.
For some, such requests are not a concern; because the video doorbell itself is marketed as a surveillance tool to prevent crime, they assume sharing their footage with police is one way to help keep their neighborhood safe. But for others, the requests can raise some uncomfortable questions.
According to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey (PDF) of 2,223 U.S. adults in January 2021, 10 percent of video doorbell owners said they’ve shared footage with law enforcement. An additional 12 percent of owners said they haven’t shared footage but have had a reason to do so.
The debate becomes more complicated as neighbors and law enforcement share videos with each other in a kind of neighborhood-watch social network. One of the biggest platforms for this kind of exchange is Neighbors by Ring, which is operated by Amazon-owned Ring and had 10 million active monthly users as of September 2020. Ring is also one of the largest providers of video doorbells in the U.S.
The law enforcement side of the service, called the Neighbors Public Safety Service, allows police and fire departments to view videos that users post and ask camera owners to provide videos that could help with active investigations.
As of late April 2023, Ring has partnered with over 2,500 local law enforcement agencies, over 570 fire departments, and 12 local government agencies. During the fourth quarter of 2020, Ring’s partner agencies sent over 5,700 video requests.
Digital rights groups such as Fight for the Future have joined with social justice groups such as Color of Change to claim that the law enforcement program unfairly targets communities of color. These groups have asked media outlets, including Consumer Reports, CNET, and Wirecutter, to rescind their recommendations of Ring products.
In response, Ring told CR that Neighbors is used in diverse communities and that all Neighbors users must agree to community guidelines before using the service. The guidelines include rules against racial profiling, discrimination, hate speech, and referencing individuals based solely on race or other personal attributes.
Ring also has put new restrictions on the process to prevent video requests from being emailed directly to customers.
For consumers who want to opt out of video request posts from law enforcement or to disable Ring’s Neighbors feature entirely, see CR’s article on how to adjust privacy and security settings in the Ring app.
Meanwhile, here’s an FAQ for homeowners with Ring or other video doorbell devices that explains their rights and obligations if the police request their video.
How do police and fire departments request videos from Ring owners? When law enforcement agencies want to gather footage from Ring device owners, they create a Request for Assistance post through the Neighbors Public Safety Service. Ring users within a certain distance of the incident then receive a notification about the post.
What do the Request for Assistance posts look like?- The post will detail the incident that’s under investigation, the police department’s name, the officer’s name, the date and time period that the officer is interested in, and the geographic area of the incident.
What are your options when you see a Request for Assistance post? You have four options: 1. You can share all recordings you have for that time period. 2. You can review your recordings for that time period and select the recordings you’d like to share. 3. You can simply ignore the post. 4. You can ignore the post and opt out of all future Request for Assistance posts.
What happens if you provide footage? If you choose to share video, Ring will provide law enforcement with your email address and physical home address. Ring gives the police access to the footage for 30 days, but as long as they download it within that time frame, they can keep it for as long as is allowed under public safety procedures and applicable law.
What happens if you ignore the post? Nothing. Ring won’t provide law enforcement with access to your cameras, your videos, or any of your personal information.
Can law enforcement agencies view live video feeds from your Ring cameras? According to Ring, law enforcement never has access to your cameras or devices, regardless of whether you share video with them.
How can you find out whether your local police and fire departments have partnered with Ring? To find out whether your local law enforcement agencies use the Neighbors Public Safety Service, view Ring’s Active Agency Map.
Can you opt out of Request for Assistance posts before you receive one? Yes, you can opt out of Request for Assistance posts from the Control Center settings dashboard in the Ring mobile app. For instructions, see our guide to using the Ring Control Center to improve your privacy and security.
Can you opt out of the Neighbors by Ring social network? Yes, you can disable the Neighbors by Ring social network feed to stop receiving posts from law enforcement and other Ring users. You also won’t be able to create posts anymore. For instructions, see our guide to the Ring Control Center.
Are there other ways that law enforcement can get your camera footage? Yes. No matter who makes your security camera or video doorbell—whether it’s Ring, Google Nest, Arlo, etc.—the police can still knock on your door and ask for footage. Of course at that point, you can still decline to provide them with footage. But if they really want that footage, they could try to get it by serving you with a warrant or subpoena.
Can law enforcement bypass you and get your footage from the camera manufacturer? Yes, if the video is stored in the cloud on the manufacturer’s servers, law enforcement can obtain it in one of two ways. First, it can obtain the footage with a binding legal order, such as a warrant or subpoena. Second, it can request the footage via an exception in the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that allows manufacturers to share footage in the event of a potentially life-threatening emergency. If the footage is stored locally on the camera (in the camera’s internal memory or on an SD card), police may have to go to you to try to get it. For more information on the ECPA exception, see our story on how camera brands share footage with police without consent.
Will Ring’s end-to-end encryption prevent law enforcement from receiving your videos? Yes, Ring can’t decrypt end-to-end encrypted videos for law enforcement. To enable end-to-end encryption on compatible Ring cameras, see our guide to the Ring Control Center.
Will the manufacturer comply with warrants and subpoenas? Consumer Reports reached out to a number of major camera and doorbell manufacturers to find out how they handle warrants and subpoenas. Eleven brands—Amazon Cloud Cam, Arlo, August, Blink, Blue by ADT, Canary, D-Link, Eufy, Google Nest, Ring, and SimpliSafe—responded to our request. Most of the representatives said they objected to overly broad requests and provided data only when legally required to do so. Of note, Arlo says it will provide video only in a criminal case and only under a legally binding order supported by probable cause.
Will the manufacturer notify me when it provides footage? Of the 11 brands we heard from, all but three will notify you when they have to disclose footage due to a request, as long as they are not legally barred from doing so. The exceptions are Arlo, Blue by ADT, and SimpliSafe. Arlo and SimpliSafe will not notify users; Blue by ADT didn’t specify either way.