Police refuse to say whether they are using smart home devices for surveillance

Essex Police has refused to say whether they have entered into an agreement that could allow them to tap into smart home devices such as video doorbells.

A series of questions were put to Essex Police about its relationship with smart device maker Ring, a subsidiary of the retail giant Amazon, through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, but the information was refused due to ‘national security’.

Ring has become a popular manufacturer of home security devices since the company launched in 2012 with a smart doorbell. The doorbell has a small video camera attached that allows homeowners to see who is at their door, as well as a microphone that allows instructions to be given to visitors.

But as the company has grown in popularity, rights groups have begun to criticise the manufacturer for using the in-built cameras to build a for-profit private surveillance network that can be accessed by some police forces.

In an FoI request, Essex Police was asked if it has any commercial agreements in place with Ring, if they have access to any surveillance platforms, and whether the force has agreed to promote the products.

But all of these questions were rejected, along with a request to see emails between Essex Police and Ring.

In the rejection, the force said: “Confirming or denying any information relating to the covert practise of this surveillance technique would show criminals what the capacity, tactical abilities and capabilities of the force are.”

It added: “It is well established that police forces use covert tactics and surveillance to gain intelligence in order to counteract criminal behaviour.

“It has been previously documented in the media that many terrorist incidents have been thwarted due to intelligence gained by these means.”

Southend councillor Martin Terry, who oversees public protection, said: “This should at least be something open to the Police, Fire and Crime Panel for scrutiny because I’ve got concerns about the tentacles of Amazon.

“It is well known they are listening in on homes through Alexa devices in a similar way.

“I am very happy if this is making neighbourhoods more secure but I think this should be scrutinised even if it is in a closed session of the crime panel.

“We should know what is going on in our neighbourhoods because there are questions about civil liberties and I think Amazon is at risk of becoming a bit Orwellian by spying on everything you do to maximise commercial activities.

“We have a national debate about the Chinese firm Huawei and its intervention in phone networks why is no debate on what Amazon is doing?”

Ioannis Kouvakas, legal officer at rights group Privacy International, also raised concerns about the lack of public scrutiny and said allowing this type of surveillance risks normalising it.

“We are facing what can be seen as a proliferation of both public and private space surveillance,” he said.

“Police departments seize these novel opportunities to either plug into private surveillance or entrust big tech companies with severe surveillance capabilities originally entrusted to the state only.

“We believe that this kind of surveillance outsourcing raises crucial human rights concerns. The involvement of private actors in deploying often extremely intrusive surveillance, like facial recognition, is highly problematic for the following reasons.

“First, such collaborations blur the lines between private and public spaces. It distorts any public safety rule because it provides police with the opportunity to tap into private surveillance networks under the excuse of preventing or detecting crime, often lacking sufficient guarantees and safeguards.

“Second, it raises fundamental democracy concerns. Police should not have dual loyalty to a private company and the public; police should be loyal to the public.

He added: “These agreements need to be subject to public debate and scrutiny and not be the product of secret negotiations.

“We need to resist to any such effort seeking to normalise surveillance. The more facial recognition and other intrusive biometric surveillance is spread across cities and public and private spaces, the more used police think we will get to that. But, at what cost?”

Essex Police was asked if they could provide any reassurance to homeowners about their smart devices but they did not respond.

A spokesman for Ring said: ” “Ring does not use facial recognition technology. Privacy, security and user control are extremely important to us, and every decision we make as a company centres around these three pillars.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter