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I-TEAM: What’s the price for peace of mind with Ring cameras?

Published: Jan. 14, 2021 at 4:18 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - More families than ever rang in the year with a new Ring security camera. Record-breaking online purchases during the pandemic have led to more people looking to protect their packages from porch thieves.

But civil rights and privacy organizations worry consumers are paying more than just the price tag for peace of mind.

Technology has its perks. It allows many of us to work from home and our children to learn at home. It even allows us to watch for package deliveries when we aren’t home. Here’s the problem with new technology is it moves much faster than our elected officials pass laws to govern it.

Ever get the feeling someone is watching you?

Sharon Merrit saw me coming before I even rang her doorbell. She has eight cameras on her property. Her husband installed the system years ago.

“He’s retired security from Savannah River Site,” Merrit said.

Their Ring camera is a recent addition.

“I got a notice the package was delivered, but when we looked on the porch it was not there,” Merrit said.

Their close circuit camera caught a man wearing a vest and carrying a clipboard on their front porch this fall.

“He’s kind of examining the package,” Merrit said. “He is feeling it around just to see then he just sweeps it up right under his clipboard, and off he goes.”

“First off, I thought, those aren’t going to fit you.”

He stole more than just $30 worth of women’s underwear. But he also stole her peace of mind.

“We went the next day and my husband installed it,” Merrit said.

The Ring gives her what her other eight cameras can’t: live video and alerts which she can share with neighbors and law enforcement through the Neighbors by Ring app.

We found the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, North Augusta Public Safety, Aiken Public Safety, and Aiken County Sheriff’s Office all signed agreements with Ring last year – along with 400 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Here’s how the Neighbors app works. Say your Ring camera catches something suspicious -- like when my bicycle disappeared two years ago. Our Ring caught a group of teens strolling by my house in the wee hours of the morning. My husband uploaded the video to the app. My neighbor was then able to check his camera, which caught someone in the same group riding away on my bike. Law enforcement was able to watch the video because we posted on the app.

Law enforcement can also request video from neighbors. Aiken Public Safety did just that several times last year. Their requests make it clear it’s entirely optional and sharing the video does not mean they can access your camera.

What concerns cybersecurity specialists like Sarah Reese is the amount of personal information Ring and other Amazon devices collect and share over the internet.

“We think of AI as something in the future,” Reese said. “Honestly, there is a lot going on in that world that is very under the cover. All the texts that they receive they already have programs that not only take speech and turn it into text and then do neuro processing on text to determine what you meant.

Even more creepy is that Amazon the parent company of Ring already holds the patent on facial recognition software and has indicated it may incorporate the technology into the Ring camera, which again, partners with law enforcement.

The I-Team found the U.S. government has been studying facial recognition technology from nearly a hundred developers over the last few years. Researchers found minorities like Asians and Blacks are more likely to be misidentified than whites.

“For one-to-one matching, the team saw higher rates of false positives for Asian and African-American faces relative to images of Caucasian,” Reese said.

For now, Amazon is hitting the pause button on giving police access to its facial recognition technology. The company’s year moratorium expires this summer.

“Anything we people have made we people can break or take apart or hack or expose or exploit,” Reese said.

Currently, there are no laws governing the use of facial recognition.

“For security, you have to submit and give away some of your privacy,” Reese said. “You have to, but how much is enough to where you feel secure but retain the rights to that you want?”

For Merrit, she doesn’t feel that way.

“I have heard comments about our privacy could be invaded that way, but we haven’t experienced any problems,” Merrit said.

A spokesperson with Ring could not tell me when or even if the company plans to incorporate facial recognition into its devices. The company did post this on its website, it does not use the technology and will neither sell or offer it to law enforcement.

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