Should You Give The Police Access To Your Home Security Camera?

Police departments all over the country are asking for access to home security cameras. Some are going so far as to offer free cameras to people who agree to hand over their footage. Is it a good idea to participate in these programs? Safety.com examines the pros and cons of sharing your security camera recordings with the police.

Should You Give The Police Access To Your Home Security Camera?

How Police Collect Security Footage

For as long as there have been surveillance cameras, it’s been standard practice for law enforcement to ask homes and businesses for footage in the event of a nearby crime. Today’s abundance of Wi-Fi connected cameras has led many police departments to organize formal footage-sharing programs in a few modern ways:

Via Social Media & Apps 

Many communities take advantage of email list serves, Facebook groups or other social media apps to share hyper-local news. In fact, two leading apps designed for this purpose – Neighbors and Nextdoor – have attracted millions of users. These online forums are a logical and efficient place to share info about neighborhood crimes or suspicious activity – and that includes camera footage. 

When police join these groups, they are automatically clued in to any posted area activity. In fact, the Neighbors app is actually a product of the Amazon-owned home security company Ring, one of the leading brands of video doorbells. It’s tailor-made to facilitate the sharing of surveillance videos with neighbors and law enforcement. Ring has formed official partnerships with over 50 police departments all over the country, wherein homeowners are frequently offered Ring cameras for free or at a steeply discounted rate. 

Camera Registry Programs

Other police departments are spearheading shared surveillance efforts outside of social media. Usually this takes the form of a camera registry where private households and businesses can register their surveillance systems. If a crime occurs in the vicinity, the police can then contact camera owners and request to review their footage as soon as possible. Again, these partnerships may or may not include free or discounted cameras to participants in the program. 

Case-by-Case Sharing Vs. Open Access

Most of the partnerships described above emphasize voluntary sharing of videos only when there’s an investigation. However, police in some localities aim for a more hands-on approach. For example, one department in New Jersey has sent officers to knock on people’s doors if they don’t answer requests for footage through the camera registry. Other departments, such as those in Mobile, AL, ask individuals and businesses for direct access to their video streams. First-person access helps police monitor larger areas and respond to incidents faster, but it doesn’t allow camera owners to decide when and what to share. 

The Positive Side of Security Camera Sharing

Security cameras have a proven ability to deter crime and help prosecute criminals, which is exactly what they’re intended to do. In one survey of 422 burglars, 60% of respondents said that security cameras would make them choose a different target. In one notable 2016 experiment, Ring partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department to install video doorbells in 41 of 400 of Wilshire Park, California homes. Neighborhood burglaries were cut by more than half compared to the year prior.

Furthermore, social apps, groups and newsletters can be great tools in uniting and informing a community. Many people appreciate engaging or concerning neighborhood news such as suspicious activity, criminal suspects or animal sightings. Many people benefit from connections like these and feel safer in their homes as a result. 

Parenting blogger Becky Beach is one of them: “I have a Ring doorbell installed and there was a prowler outside last month,” she told us, so she shared her footage with the local police through their account on Nextdoor.com. “The police have been on our Nextdoor community for three years now and I have never felt safer.”

Privacy Experts Describe What Could Go Wrong

  • Law enforcement officials caution that social media oversharing can interfere with official investigations. As Peter Henning, a law professor and former federal prosecutor, told the Detroit Free Press, “When [a video] goes public, it can cut off leads for the police or investigative techniques.” It can also be defamatory for innocent people. In one tragic example, social media-fueled false accusations are said to have contributed to the suicide of Sunil Tripathi, a student who was wrongly identified as a suspect in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings in an online witch hunt.  
  • Groups that encourage users to take home security and neighborhood safety into their own hands may intentionally or unintentionally promote vigilante justice. One mobile app called Citizen (formerly Vigilante), which shares real-time crime information, was initially banned from the App Store because of law enforcement concerns. 
  • Police are bound to local and federal laws restricting how they may collect evidence and investigate crimes. Private citizens monitoring their own property aren’t subject to the same restrictions. Offering up privately obtained footage helps police to legally circumvent governmental regulations that are in place to protect human rights. 
  • Skeptics also submit that the online rumor mill churns out unwarranted fear. Some even question if Amazon has a vested interest in cultivating paranoia since fear sells more security cameras than safety. 
  • Artificial intelligence is improving, and that means sharing security feeds is much more invasive and powerful than it used to be. “Police departments with access to this footage can easily apply their own facial recognition and automatic license plate reading algorithms to the recordings and monitor and track whomever they please, regardless of whether any crime is actually being perpetrated,” privacy expert Attila Tomaschek points out. Two U.S. cities have outright bans on facial recognition in public spaces and activists are pushing for more widespread restrictions to prevent the creation of an AI-driven surveillance state. If that sounds implausible, consider that Amazon (which owns Ring and vends a number of other home security products) recently filed a patent for surveillance drones

Questions To Ask Before Sharing Your Security Videos 

If you’re thinking about joining a camera registry, publicly posting your camera footage, or accepting a free camera in exchange for granting police access, consider the following first. 

  • What kind of access are you agreeing to? If you’re entering a partnership with the police, will you be required to share any and all footage requested? “There is nothing wrong with offering up various pieces of your feed in the event a crime does occur nearby. Allowing police to exercise their own judgment on a continuous 24/7 feed is where problems arise,” advises Will Ellis, founder of PrivacyAustralia.net. Ellis cites concerns about police overstepping their boundaries and exercising a lack of restraint when it comes to monitoring private feeds. It’s worth noting that Ring also actively discourages the open-access model, and says it discourages police partners from requiring it.
  • What do you get in return? If you’re considering joining a police program just for the free or discounted camera, consider that there are many inexpensive and easily installed security cameras on the market. You can get your own camera for a very low investment, and voluntarily share footage with the police whenever you want to, without ever signing up for any registry. 
  • Are there better home security options available? Participating in an online group or police camera registry can be a great way to up your personal sense of safety, but it’s not the only way. For example, monitored home security systems provide you with a professional 24/7 emergency response team while keeping your privacy intact.
  • Will posting the footage have negative repercussions for the investigation or innocent bystanders? Highly sensitive video may be traumatic for the general public. If there is a victim or witness in the video, sharing it may complicate the official investigation. When in doubt, share the video evidence with the authorities before publicizing it yourself. 

Emily Ferron

Written by your home security expert

Emily Ferron