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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Advocates and experts are worried that an Amazon-owned mobile app, used by owners of its Ring security cameras to upload videos for neighbors to see, could entrench racial discrimination and violate people's privacy.

Why it matters: The app, called Neighbors, is striking deals to partner with police departments across the country.

Driving the news: Last week, journalists on Twitter noticed Ring was hiring an editor — prompting concerns that Amazon was stoking community fears to sell security systems. (Amazon bought the company last year.)

How it works: People with and without Ring cameras can download the Neighbors app. It features a feed where users can post videos and photos from their cameras, file reports of activity they think is suspicious and read crime reports from the app's “News Team.”

  • The application partners with law enforcement, allowing them to post alerts to solicit possible video evidence useful to their investigations through a platform described by The Intercept earlier this year. (The company says that when "using Neighbors Portal, law enforcement see the same interface that all users see.")
  • An agreement obtained by the open-records site MuckRock between the Richmond, Va. police department and Ring said it was up to the agency to maintain “appropriate access controls for RPD personnel to use the Ring Neighborhood Police portal.”
  • Part of the agreement was that for every "qualifying download" of the app that came from the Richmond program, the city would get a $10 credit towards donated cameras.

Details: The Neighbors app highlights multiple concerns about what happens when you build digital platforms for neighborhoods, particularly those that aim to spotlight crime, said multiple advocates and experts.

  • Neighborhood message boards are already famously rife with racism, and Motherboard reported earlier this year it had found frequent racist comments on Ring's app as well. “I think having the videos oftentimes makes things even worse than they would be in just a text-based neighborhood message board format,” said Harlan Yu, executive director of the research group Upturn.
  • The ubiquitous nature of Ring cameras runs the risk of capturing behavior unrelated to the crimes they are supposed to deter. "This is sort of supercharging the surveillance of people’s private lives and potentially constitutionally protected activity,” said Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the Washington state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

What they’re saying: The burdens of increased video surveillance and fears stoked by the apps will fall on people of color, who are already more likely to face police discrimination.

  • “The bottom line is that this app is going to end up simply stoking people’s fears, especially people’s racist fears, and it’s also going to bring law enforcement to act on people's racial biases,” said Yu.
  • “Amazon needs to recognize that law enforcement itself in this country has a long and documented history of racial discrimination," Yu added.
  • Ring has also filed patents related to facial recognition, technology that can notoriously reflect racial bias.

Ring's response: "We realize that there are many intricacies involved in fighting crime and facilitating community discussions and are always looking at ways to further develop and enhance our services," the company said in a statement.

  • The company said it encourages "neighbors to report racial profiling using our in-app flagging tool" and that its users "have full control of who views their Ring footage."
  • It also denied using facial recognition.

Digitizing the neighborhood watch has raised discrimination concerns before.

  • In 2015, the Business Improvement District in Washington, D.C.'s wealthy Georgetown neighborhood found that almost 70 percent of the "suspicious" people discussed on a GroupMe chat between shops and police were black.
  • Nextdoor, the popular message board app for neighborhoods, has struggled with racism on its platform as well.

The Neighbors app is already being linked to arrests, according to reports from local news outlets around the country.

  • In February, police in Shawnee, Kansas weren’t able to find a man who had been allegedly trying to cash stolen checks.
  • They used Ring’s app, asking residents to "Check your video. Check out your windows," Shawnee Police Department Sgt. Craig Herrmann told a local television station.
  • “We were able to have people basically continuing to watch, to look for him after we left,” he said.

The bottom line: The number of data-hungry devices — from wearables to connected appliances to security cameras — keeps growing, raising increasingly urgent questions about how they shape society and perpetuate biases.

Go deeper

Cuomo asks New York AG and chief judge to choose "independent" investigator into sexual harassment claims

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a press conference on Feb. 24. Photo: Seth Wenig/pool/AFP via Getty Images

A special counselor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement on Sunday asking the state's attorney general and chief judge to jointly pick an "independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation" to investigate claims of sexual harassment against the governor.

The state of play: The statement is an about-face from Cuomo, who had previously selected a former judge close to a top aide to lead the investigation, the New York Times reported, a move that was widely criticized.

Republican Sen. Sasse slams Nebraska GOP for "weird worship" of Trump after state party rebuke

Sen. Ben Sasse, (R-Neb.) Photo: Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images

The Nebraska Republican Party on Saturday formally "rebuked" Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) for his vote to impeach former President Trump earlier this year, though it stopped short of a formal censure, CNN reports.

Why it matters: Sasse is the latest among a slate of Republicans who have faced some sort of punishment from their state party apparatus after voting to impeach the former president. The senator responded statement Saturday, per the Omaha World-Herald, saying "most Nebraskans don't think politics should be about the weird worship of one dude."

Cuomo barraged by fellow Dems after second harassment accusation

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced a barrage of criticism from fellow Democrats after The New York Times reported that the second former aide in four days had accused him of sexual harassment.

Why it matters: Cuomo had faced a revolt from legislators for his handling of nursing-home deaths from COVID. Now, the scandal is acutely personal, with obviously grave political risk.