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Ring sting targets package thieves but concerns privacy advocates

Ring doorbell
The Chula Vista Police Department has partnered with the doorbell-camera company Ring to crack down on package thefts.
(Associated Press)

The holidays are here, and delivery drivers aren’t the only ones paying homes a visit. Fueled by the ease of online shopping, porches are piled high with packages — easy targets for thieves.

Over the last several weeks, the Chula Vista Police Department has been leveraging one of its newest technological tools — a partnership with the doorbell-camera company Ring — to crack down on the thefts.

But the strategy the department employed in at least one of those operations concerned privacy advocates and later prompted Ring to launch an investigation into the matter.

Ring, a home security company best known for its internet-connected doorbell camera, has forged hundreds of video-sharing partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the country. Although departments need permission from residents to access the footage, the ever-growing network of cameras has fueled concern over potential abuses.

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According to recent emails sent to some of the city’s Ring subscribers, an officer asked residents if they’d be interested in placing fake packages on their doorsteps in an attempt to catch so-called porch pirates.

A department spokesman confirmed operations targeting package thieves were conducted, but provided no other details, saying more information could compromise ongoing investigations. The email, sent Nov. 15, did not state when such an operation might take place.

“The Chula Vista Police Department does recognize that theft is more common during the holidays, and we’re trying to take a more proactive enforcement stance to prevent that from happening,” Chula Vista Police Lt. Dan Peak said.

As for Ring, a company spokesman said the police department was not supposed to message its customers for that purpose.

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“Users have the option to provide helpful information if local police ask for assistance with an active investigation,” the company said in a statement. “That process has been designed to ensure that no user information is shared with local police unless that user decides to do so. That being said, this feature is not meant to be a messaging tool. We’ve reached out to the Chula Vista Police Department and have suspended their access to this feature while we look into this matter.”

Privacy advocates pointed to the sting as another example of the company capitalizing on community concern over crime to expand what is essentially a privately owned surveillance system.

Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Ring appears to be operating under the assumption that “fear sells.”

“If you get people afraid of their neighborhood, then they will buy Ring cameras, and those cameras will, in turn, make them more afraid, because every time someone walks by and their phone buzzes, they’ll think it’s a burglar on their porch,” Guariglia said.

He said it’s an unfortunate but predictable next step that the product would be used to help create crimes of opportunity that did not exist.

Peak offered few details about the operation, including how many people, if any, volunteered to participate or whether any thieves were caught. He said the department has employed a number of investigative techniques outside of its partnership with Ring to zero in on criminals.

That included analyzing the locations of reported package thefts to identify potential hot spots and sifting through social media comments from residents who may have been victimized. Peak added that officers who had been sent to investigate some of the thefts had noted several nearby residents had Ring cameras and had knocked on those doors to explain they would be interested in footage of any thefts that occurred in the future.

He said the response from those residents was “overwhelmingly positive.”

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Chula Vista isn’t the first county agency to target thieves with Ring. Last holiday season, the Oceanside Police Department — one of the first agencies in the state to partner with the service — called the home camera a “game changer,” adding that it had led to arrests within weeks of entering into a partnership with the company.

Peak was not able to say by deadline if the department had used Ring to make any arrests or crack any cases. He did offer tips to those looking to keep their packages safe including having them delivered to a workplace or to a friend or relative that will be home. Residents can also pick up packages at the post office or request a signature be required upon deliver, he said.

Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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