Do Video Doorbells Really Help to Deter Crime?

On a Monday afternoon in late June, two women were outside on the 500 block of Gridley Avenue in Akron, Ohio, when they were shot. Moments earlier, three young men pulled up in a silver Ford Taurus, exited the vehicle, and opened fire before driving away, according to local media accounts. More than 40 shell casings were recovered, reports say, with bullets striking several vehicles and homes. One of the victims, a 65-year-old woman, said she was shot in the shoulder while sitting on her porch. “I’ve lived here for 41 years and I can’t even sit on my porch anymore,” she told 19 News in Cleveland.

The next day, there was another shooting just over a mile away, also involving multiple young men in a vehicle. In both cases, the incidents were recorded by Ring video doorbells and the footage was shared with the police department and local television news stations.

There have been no arrests so far. The Akron Police Department, however, says it is always looking for opportunities to use video doorbells — which are motion activated devices that record both movement and audio — along with other technologies, to help solve cases like these.

Coincidentally, the week of the June shootings, the Akron City Council announced a pilot program to give away 460 video doorbells from Ring — owned by Amazon — to residents in targeted neighborhoods with high crime rates in an effort to reduce or deter crime. Those residents who participate must agree to turn over any recorded video to police if asked.

About 6,800 Akron residents were eligible for the doorbells as of June, according to The Akron Beacon Journal. Some of them live in or around so-called hot spots, which are highly trafficked places where crimes occur more frequently. Hot spots can account for up to 50 percent of reported crime in some cities even though they are only a small footprint of the total area.

Nearly a month after the Akron program was revealed, the northwestern Louisiana city of Shreveport announced a similar program offering free Ring cameras to residents or homeowners.

Akron and Shreveport are joining a growing number of cities where authorities buy Ring video doorbells and offer them to residents free or offer a rebate. In 2019, more than 400 police departments partnered with Ring. As of the end of November, that number is more than 2,600 police departments, along with almost 600 fire departments and more than 70 local government agencies.

Both of the Akron shootings this June were recorded by Ring video doorbells and the footage was shared with the police department and local television news stations. There have been no arrests so far.

The partnerships enable residents to share video — and police to request their videos — with a simple click on the Neighbors by Ring application for smartphones and tablets. This essentially creates a virtual neighborhood watch. “Criminals and thieves take note: our team is working tirelessly to stop you and make safer neighborhoods for our families to live in,” Ring’s founder and chief inventor, Jamie Siminoff, wrote in a 2019 post on the company’s website.

The problem is that there is very little published data on the effectiveness of Ring — or similar, less popular video doorbell cameras, such as Google Nest, Skybell, ADT, or Vivint — as a crime prevention or deterrent tool, several researchers told Undark. And, according to datasets that helped researchers at MIT Media Lab create what they say is the first nationwide map of Ring users and usage patterns, the cameras may have little to no impact on crime in Los Angeles, a city with a relatively high concentration of the devices.

“This is a question that comes up time and time again, especially among both critics and proponents of the system,” said computer scientist Dan Calacci, a co-author of the MIT Media Lab paper who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. “Because people, I think, see it as a crime deterrent tool. And there’s no strong evidence.”

The conclusions to the MIT Media Lab paper on Ring are among the latest datapoints in an ongoing conversation — in academia, popular media, and social media — around surveillance. A recently published 40-year systematic review of the effect of closed circuit television on crime found that systems that were actively monitored were associated with a significant reduction in crime, while passively monitored systems were not. And earlier in November, Wired published a long read by contributor Lauren Smiley on the ubiquity of citizen surveillance in San Francisco.

“People, I think, see it as a crime deterrent tool. And there’s no strong evidence.”

Ring claims that its video doorbells also prevent crime, said Ben Stickle, a criminologist based at Middle Tennessee State University who researches package theft and emerging crimes. That seems to be a selling point, he added, but “it’s really not been studied.”

The number of Ring cameras across the nation has increased as more consumers opt for home deliveries since the pandemic. Some analysts say the larger number of smart video doorbells doesn’t necessarily make neighborhoods safer but does increase police powers by warrantless video requests.

The police partnerships allow Ring to operate as a “privately owned surveillance” network without accountability, said Max Isaacs, senior staff attorney for the New York University School of Law’s Policing Project and a co-author of a civil rights audit of Ring that took almost two years to complete. “At a bare minimum,” Isaacs said, the police “would need to go to the city council, they would need to get an appropriation to set up these cameras. But when private individuals are setting up their own surveillance networks, and handing the data over to police, you’ve evaded those democratic checks.”

“You end up with a situation in which police can dramatically expand their surveillance capabilities without any meaningful oversight,” he said. Ring did not respond to questions from Undark in time for publication.

Ring, based in Santa Monica, California, markets a line of smart, Wi-Fi- enabled doorbell cameras, as well as other home security cameras and alarm systems. More than 10 million Americans are believed to own the company’s signature product: the world’s first video doorbell camera.

Ring began in 2012 through crowdfunding as “DoorBot.” The next year, Siminoff appeared on the ABC television reality series “Shark Tank” and pitched the device to investors for a $700,000 investment. The investors declined. The next year, the company was rebranded as Ring and sold to Amazon four years later for more than $1 billion, according to estimates. Ring is now the leading manufacturer of smart doorbells globally.

The doorbell cameras are connected to smartphones, tablets, and computers via a wireless router and offer a live video feed of the area around the doorbell, including front porch, hallways, walkways, or sidewalks. The devices begin recording whenever motion is detected within a range of about 30 feet. The cameras also have the capacity to record audio and can detect noise and conversations up to about 18 feet, according to tests conducted by Consumer Reports.

The Neighbors by Ring social media application allows users to upload and share these recorded videos with neighbors. The app reportedly has more than 10 million active users, who can customize their stream of safety alerts and recorded videos and post them to others on the platform who are within a radius of about 5 miles. The app also enables linked police departments to request footage from the doorbells on specific streets, blocks, or other locations. There were reportedly some 3,500 police requests in the first six months of 2022, according to Wired.

Residents and homeowners who received rebates or got their video doorbells for free through city partnerships with Ring — such as in Akron or Shreveport — are required to comply with any request for their footage that police deem reasonably necessary.

Ring claims its video doorbells reduced burglaries by 50 percent in two neighborhoods in Newark, New Jersey, from April to July 2018, compared to the same period the previous year. But according to an October 2018 report by MIT Technology Review, the data, collected several months after Amazon acquired Ring in February 2018, has not been authenticated by outside experts. “The latest data,” the article noted, “show burglaries down by nearly 30% citywide [in 2018] and the biggest improvements were outside the Ring trial precincts.”

In fact, there is little independent data on Ring’s effectiveness, though the company has previously cited several studies or reports to back up its claims. One often-reported statistic is that Ring video doorbells helped reduce burglaries by 55 percent over six months in 2015 in a Los Angeles neighborhood. Such findings have drawn skepticism from journalists and researchers alike.

A map, maintained by Ring, of public safety agencies that use Neighbors by Ring, an app that enables residents to share Ring video, as well as police to request residents’ videos. As of the end of November, more than 2,600 police departments have partnered with Ring, along with almost 600 fire departments and more than 70 local government agencies.

And according to the team at MIT Media Lab, there was no strong evidence that video doorbells decrease property crimes across Los Angeles. Their paper, published last fall in the peer-reviewed journal The Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery on Human-Computer Interaction, created the “first comprehensive map and analysis of smart doorbell camera use across the continental U.S.”

Calacci and their colleagues, computer scientists Jeffrey J. Shen and Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, wanted to determine how consumers use and share Ring camera videos on the Neighbors app at the county and the state level.

“We found no real correlation between higher and lower crime rates in different counties or real census tracts for property crime versus violent crime for places that you’d post more on the platform,” Calacci told Undark.

The researchers also used spatial regression — a type of statistical analysis that demonstrates relationships between geographic areas — to estimate nationwide usage of Ring and the Neighbors app. The dataset included about 850,000 text and video posts made by about 650,000 users between October 2016 and February 2020. The datasets show there were less than 500 posts per day in October 2016 and nearly 2,000 per day in early 2020.

“We found no real correlation between higher and lower crime rates in different counties or real census tracts for property crime versus violent crime for places that you’d post more on the platform.”

The team then decided to use Los Angeles as a case study because of its size, economic, and racial diversity, and the city’s high rate of camera usage. In addition, the researchers noted, the Los Angeles Police Department was “one of the earliest law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to partner with Ring and the LAPD has used the platform extensively to collect video footage.”

The researchers analyzed LAPD crime data from 2019. The data showed no significant correlation between posting rates on the Neighbors app and actual theft, burglary, trespassing, vehicle theft, and break-in statistics in the city that year.

“In other words,” the authors concluded, “the prevalence of content on Ring Neighbors reporting crimes does not reflect the official crime rates within that community.”

In recent years, Ring has drawn a significant amount of news coverage, mostly concerning how its data is stored and shared, and transparency on the Neighbors app. Some of that attention has focused on how videos are shared with police departments. For instance, in July 2022, Amazon revealed that it provided Ring video doorbell camera recordings to police departments at least 11 times that year without the owners’ consent.

To that end, Ring approached New York University School of Law’s Policing Project in 2020 to assess how police departments were using its technology. The Policing Project is a research and advocacy organization that often audits emerging policing technologies such as facial recognition technology, body-worn cameras, and aerial surveillance.

“During the audit, Ring gave us access to information about NPSS that to this point has never been disclosed publicly,” such as the amount of video police accessed and the types of crimes that are investigated, the authors wrote in their final report. NPSS, or Neighbors Public Safety Service, allows police departments to join the Neighbors app.

“The prevalence of content on Ring Neighbors reporting crimes does not reflect the official crime rates within that community.”

The Policing Project noted that Ring provided every video request made by the police during a three-month period. The audit reviewed several thousand requests by police in June 2020, September 2020, and January 2021. The audit revealed the most common police requests were theft from vehicles, shootings, and thefts from homes. “There also were a significant number of video requests where the underlying crime was unclear,” according to the report, “a problem that Ring has corrected during this audit.”

Another key concern was transparency. The audit noted that Ring previously did not publish the names or total numbers of police partners. As a result, Ring now creates public profiles for every police and public safety partner, and every video request by police partners must be made through a public post on the Neighbors app. Ring also agreed not to partner with federal or immigration law enforcement agencies.

Another issue surrounding Ring video doorbells is their supposed impact on package theft, or “porch piracy.” More than 119 million packages were stolen in 2023, according to SafeWise, an online home and internet security resource.

But estimates vary, according to Stickle, who is on the SafeWise board of advisers. There is very little hard data on the extent and scope of package theft and the phenomenon is relatively understudied, he said.

“There’s no specific skill necessary to walk up and take a package,” Stickle said. “The risks of being caught and captured are very minimal as well.”

Stickle and other researchers are not convinced that Ring video doorbells are an effective deterrent. “The number of steps that it would take for video footage to be useful in a criminal case is pretty substantial,” noted Stickle. First, the camera must be functioning and placed at the best angle to capture the crime, he said. Then the crime must be recorded properly.

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“Then they have to call the police,” Stickle added. “The police have to respond and choose to do a report, which for many times, those things don’t happen for package theft. You have to get the video to the police and then they have to try to find some way to find out who they are.”

The nationwide increase in the number of smart doorbells are also impacting laws and public policy, according to an October 2022 report that draws on interviews with video doorbell users and delivery workers.

“We’ve seen a rather large increase in municipalities that are trying to either increase penalties for package theft or create new penalties for package theft, some of them even classifying them as felonies that could lead to jail time,” said the report’s co-author, Aiha Nguyen, program director of the Labor Futures Initiative at Data & Society, a nonprofit focused on public policy and emerging technology.

At least eight states have increased penalties for package theft to a felony in the last five years, reports Business Insider. The increase in legislation and penalties appears to be excessive, in Nguyen’s view, because currently available research does not demonstrate that porch piracy is increasing.

By mid-October, four months or so since the Akron City Council announced its Ring pilot program, all but six of the 460 video doorbells had been distributed, Akron City Council Chief of Staff Joan Williams told Undark by email.

“In response to the high demand for the cameras, we are exploring the possibility of expanding the scope of the program in the first quarter of 2024,” Williams wrote.

Even so, “while we constantly look for opportunities to utilize technology, including Ring Doorbell Cams, where available, there have yet to be any specific cases involving Ring that have directly assisted, per the detectives,” according to an email statement provided Michael Miller, a public information officer with the Akron Police Department.

Only one day after the June 26 shootout on Gridley Avenue that injured the two women, an 80-year-old pastor was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting in Akron. The elderly man was reportedly helping a woman change her tire in front of her home when three men pulled up in a red SUV, and opened fire, according to Cleveland 19 News.

Once again, the shooting was recorded by a neighbor’s video doorbell camera. No arrests have been reported.

Rod McCullom is a Chicago-based science journalist and senior contributor to Undark whose work has been published by Scientific American, Nature, The Atlantic, and MIT Technology Review, among other publications.