Police Are Building Surveillance Networks of Private Security Cameras in Cities

Log onto Nextdoor.com, the message board of choice for Washington, D.C.’s most affluent neighborhoods, and, alongside photos of lost keys and microwaves for sale, there are clips from security cameras.

“Man attempting to enter parked cars (possibly armed with visible gun)” reads one post by “Simon J.” from July 10, 2018, featuring a grainy image of a Black man walking beside a van. Further posts by Simon J., published in the Nextdoor forum for D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood reveal that the “visible gun” refers only to a shape in the man’s pocket.

A string of comments from neighbors follows, each claiming they, too, have seen this man in their neighborhood. “I saw him too at 29th and N St… Scoping out cars!” one wrote. Another woman responded to say she saw him “checking out cars,” and attached an image of an unidentifiable Black man riding a bicycle down the sidewalk in broad daylight, his face turned from the camera.

Several commenters lamented that, when they had called the police, the cops did not judge the situation worthy of response. “If you tell the police he is armed, they should come,” one person suggested.

For cities across the country, encouraging security camera ownership and this kind of online sharing, often in partnership with police, is becoming a new pillar of what its advocates deem “crime prevention.” These initiatives have changed the way communities are policed — and police themselves. Now, as protests over police brutality surge in cities across the country, law enforcement is relying on these networks to identify demonstrators.

“We are not done making arrests,” Peter Newsham, D.C.’s police chief, said at a June 1 press conference after a night of unrest in Washington, in which police used tear gas on protesters. “Our city, thankfully, has a very expansive CCTV system. We have government-owned cameras. We have privately-owned cameras.” He added that police were “urging” residents and businesses to share their footage.

D.C. residents have taken up the call. “Check your cameras,” reads one June 2 Nextdoor post from a woman in northwest D.C. She wrote that she was forwarding police a video of “several young men” talking about robbing a bank during the protests, unaware they were being recorded by her home’s security camera.

Police Incentivize Private Surveillance Cameras

Washington, D.C., is a striking example of how cities can finance private surveillance. Over the past four years, D.C. has funded more than 18,000 security cameras for its residents, an investment of more than $2 million. The city’s private security camera “incentive program” passes out $500 rebates and vouchers to city residents who purchase their own camera systems — provided they register them with the city’s police department. A new abundance of security cameras now blink out from porches and back alleys. Their footage is plastered across forums like Nextdoor.

Such initiatives are proliferating across the country. Spokane, Washington, and Baltimore, Maryland, as well as several neighborhoods in Minneapolis, have launched similar rebate programs in the last two years, while San Francisco, California, Des Moines, Iowa, and Berkeley, California, all keep private security camera registries.

These registry programs typically share only the location and camera system information with police, and do not give law enforcement direct access to camera feeds. Chicago’s security camera network goes a step further, however, as once the owner registers their camera, the police and various city agencies can access it at any time without permission. The Chicago police say they command a network of 45,000 cameras around the city, though they do not disclose how many of those cameras are privately owned.

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) already operates hundreds of public CCTV cameras around Washington, D.C. Through the security camera registry, police now have the precise coordinates of thousands more. And unlike the CCTV system, the locations of registered private cameras are not made public.

“I can say without a doubt we’re seeing more and more cameras,” said Robert Contee, MPD assistant chief. “The rebate program has certainly helped with that.”

Contee said MPD has tracked people deemed “suspects” walking to or from crime scenes using the cameras. Checking the private camera registry to contact camera owners for footage, he said, is now commonplace in his investigations. Program reports show that footage from the cameras has been used to make arrests on charges ranging from murder to petty theft.

Demonstrators in D.C. and in cities across the country, already enduring police violence, must also contend with cameras at every turn — on businesses, on public buildings, within communities. Whitney Shepard, an organizer with the D.C.-based Stop Police Terror Project, which organizes around police violence, says that for protesters, that “is really scary.” Historically, police and the FBI have put significant resources toward tracking Black activists, from the COINTELPRO projects during the civil rights movement to the uprising in Ferguson.

“[Community surveillance] is one of the more insidious ways we witness that,” Shepard said. “In this moment, we as organizers want to push the narrative that we need to be watching out for our neighbors, not watching them. It’s unfortunate to see the leaders in D.C. not take that to heart.”

There have long been concerns surrounding the privacy implications of police reliance on private security camera footage. For Sharon Franklin, policy director for New America’s Open Technology Institute, the programs serve as a kind of backdoor for police surveillance.

“This is the deputizing of private individuals for police surveillance, without apparent controls to ensure that the rules that should apply to government surveillance are still applying,” Franklin said.

Others have warned that digital security cameras, now built to broadcast footage with ease on social media, foster paranoia in wealthy neighborhoods — often leading to racial profiling. Use of such cameras to share photos of people of color (often Black men) deemed “suspicious” in white neighborhoods is well-documented.

In D.C., there is a clear disparity in which residents are taking advantage of the camera rebates. As DCist reported in March, neighborhoods east of the Anacostia river have received only 15 percent of rebates, despite higher poverty levels and reported violent crime rates. D.C.’s whiter, wealthier neighborhoods, meanwhile, have benefited.

Michelle Garcia, the director of D.C.’s Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, which runs the camera incentive program, said she would not confirm or deny an unequal distribution of the cameras. “We have been literally pounding the pavement to get the information out and make people aware of the program,” she said.

A Lucrative Spider Web of Surveillance

This distribution of cameras in Washington, D.C., aligns with national trends of private security camera use. Companies like Amazon Ring have targeted the country’s more affluent, suburban neighborhoods as a consumer base. Amazon markets its Ring Doorbell product not just as a video feed but as a platform — the shiny doorbell camera comes packaged with a community crime-mapping app.

Amazon Ring has forged data-sharing relationships with more than 400 police departments nationally, and has come under fire for its close relationship with law enforcement. The company has pushed police departments to promote its cameras, in some cases offering free cameras as a reward for promoting the Ring app, according to reporting by Motherboard.

Notably, companies like Ring have loose restrictions on when they can share private camera footage directly with police. According to Ring’s public information sharing policy, the company may disclose information “in connection with an investigation of suspected or actual illegal activity,” though Ring says it does not do so in the absence of a subpoena or warrant.

Amazon Ring says it has played an active role in promoting security camera subsidies across the country. Though the company does not have a public partnership with MPD, in 2016, at the camera program’s launch, Ring posted a blog post announcing it was working with the government of the District of Columbia to “get the word out.”

“Ring has already worked with cities across the US to launch similar programs,” the post reads. The company then said it was lowering the price of some of its cameras specifically for D.C. residents taking advantage of the rebate program.

Garcia said that regardless of Ring’s support, the D.C. incentive program does not recommend any particular camera for purchase. But for Amazon, the program has undoubtedly been good business.

“Ring is committed to protecting user privacy,” a company spokesperson told Truthout, adding that the company does not support programs that mandate sharing of footage “contrary to [users’] personal preference.”

Many companies have found investing in surveillance to be lucrative. In Minneapolis, where police in at least five city suburbs have partnerships with Ring, Target has been a major investor in police surveillance, spending $300,000 on CCTV cameras around the city.

On May 28, in the days following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, footage of a Minneapolis Target being looted went viral. For many, the incident has come to represent popular backlash against surveillance and corporate greed.

Private security cameras are often just one piece of the ever-expanding surveillance infrastructure in cities. In Chicago, police use Stingray tracking devices to surveil cell phone locations. In New York City, police use license plate readers to monitor a car’s location in real time. And in January, MPD announced it was partnering with Nextdoor, allowing forum users like those that shared the “suspicious” photos in Georgetown to quickly forward their posts to police.

“You’ve seen that cities, by partnering with private businesses and individuals, by getting federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, have been able to build out these very massive camera networks that essentially allow police departments to have a huge portion of cities under watch all the time,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight. “That is pretty troubling.”

For Shepard, this ever-expanding digital surveillance infrastructure is most harmful for Black communities and other communities of color.

“When we have … surveillance cameras everywhere, you have to wear an ankle bracelet, you have a drone policing your neighborhood — it’s a way to make communities that have already been displaced through ghettoization and redlining easy to police,” she said.

Of course, the growing abundance of camera footage has also proved a double-edged sword for police. The camera video of George Floyd’s death has spurred a national reckoning. It was captured, too, on nearby security cameras.