Middletown police are first in the state to team up with Amazon to enlist the community for help in surveillance, but some activists have expressed privacy concerns.

More than 400 police departments across 40 states have teamed up with Amazon to improve community surveillance. Middletown is the first in Delaware to join.

Middletown police entered into a partnership with Amazon’s Ring doorbell-camera company, giving them the potential to get surveillance video from residents.

The partnership lets police request video that community members have uploaded to Ring’s Neighbors app and post crime and traffic updates through the Neighbors Portal, an extension of the app for law enforcement. Community members can post anything they want to the portal anonymously, including written posts, photos and videos.

Middletown Police Chief Robert Kracyla said as soon as he heard about the program, he knew he wanted the department to be part of it.

“We saw it right away as something that could be effective for our community,” he said. “We wanted to take advantage of it.”

Once a law enforcement agency joins, they are able to view publicly posted content from users through the Neighbors Portal. They are able to comment and respond to user posts with an official agency login while residents remain anonymous.

In a company statement, Amazon said the program was created in 2018 to make neighborhoods safer and working with police is a big part of that.

“We are proud to work with law enforcement agencies across the country and have taken care to design these programs in a way that keeps users in control,” the company said.

Officers can’t receive ongoing or live video access, and a user must give explicit consent for them to use anything that has been posted in the portal.

Police send a request through the Neighbors Portal detailing a specific time and area. Ring sends an email or notification to those who have posted a video fitting the criteria, asking if the police can use the footage.

“They are initiating the investigative response,” Kracyla said. “They’re the ones taking the first step in solving crimes and have an active part in solving crime now.”

Residents don’t have to own a Ring product to use Neighbors, the Ring spokesperson said. Videos and photos can be uploaded from any surveillance device. People can use the Neighbors app to interact with community members even if their local law enforcement are not involved in an Amazon partnership. The app is free for iOS, Android and FireOS devices.

Kracyla said about 3,000 people within city limits already use it.

Not in use elsewhere in state

Kracyla said other police departments in Delaware have not considered joining the program as far as he knows.

Det. Joseph Melvin from Georgetown Police Department said he doesn’t know much about the program but believes it will benefit agencies.

“Anytime we are given additional resources, especially with surveillance, it helps with mitigation and effective and quick investigations,” he said.

Melvin said Georgetown has not discussed using it yet, but he is eager to see how well it will help law enforcement.

Cpl. Mark Hoffman, Dover police public information officer, said the department has not had any discussions about it, so he could not comment on its potential effectiveness.

The nearest police department to use the program is Cecil County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland, according to Ring’s website.

Privacy concerns

Fight for the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on digital rights, has been outspoken about privacy concerns when local police partner with private corporations. Companies don’t require the same transparency as government.

“When big tech companies become too cozy with the government, the potential for human rights abuses are staggering,” Evan Greer, Fight for the Future deputy director, said. “The closer Amazon’s relationship to the government becomes, the more our rights are in danger.”

Amazon did not comment.

Kracyla said consent has to be granted for police to access or use any footage from Ring or other surveillance products. Although the Middletown police have yet to use the video, residents have volunteered footage outside the Neighbors app.

Once in the hands of the police, they can share video with anyone. Kracyla said they can share it with anyone in law enforcement and can post it on social media.

Greer said citizens should be concerned about the limited oversight and policies concerning what police can do with the footage.

Karen Lantz, American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware policy counsel, said the advance of video technology in general is a privacy concern and partnerships like this should be evaluated by the community.

“Citizens and elected officials should have the chance to thoroughly review the implications of such partnerships and decide if the implications for everyone’s privacy are something society is prepared to live with,” she said.

The Middletown Police Department requested approval from the town council to enter the partnership in September but not all departments across the country have done that.

According to multiple reports, some entered the Amazon agreement without bringing it to a city council open forum for community members to address concerns. Because the agreement does not involve any new financial terms, councils are not necessarily required to approve it.

Middletown’s council had concerns about privacy but approved the request.

Some of the agreement’s details are different from how Kracyla explained it at the meeting.

He had said it would give the police access to any video surveillance from residents who use Ring after the user gives permission. Once he or she agrees, the department was allowed to extract video for any investigation, whether the doorbell owner is personally involved or not.

Kracyla spoke with Ring to clarify the details after the town approved the program.