KC-area police using Neighbors app to fight crime. Does it encourage racial profiling?

Several metro-area law enforcement agencies have recently joined the Kansas City Police Department in using the Neighbors app from the home surveillance company Ring.

Lenexa, Olathe, Overland Park and Shawnee are the first cities in Kansas to use the app billed as a digital neighborhood watch program. The Neighbors app provides local, real-time crime and safety information, police say.

Residents download the app to monitor neighborhood activity; share crime- and safety-related videos, photos and posts; and receive real-time safety alerts from neighbors, the police and the Ring team.

Customers are not required to share their video, police say, and they voluntarily provide footage.

Still, the ACLU of Kansas is monitoring the situation.

“It’s one thing for community members to use the app, but it’s concerning when the government does,” said ACLU of Kansas Legal Director Lauren Bonds. “From a policy perspective, it could be a real problem.”

The Kansas City Police Department was the first law enforcement agency in Missouri to use the digital crime-fighting tool. To be sure, innovative approaches are needed to reduce crime in Kansas City. But this new technology also spurs new questions about the guard rails that are needed to protect people’s privacy and civil rights.

Crime- and safety-focused platforms such as Neighbors can reinforce racism and threaten the civil rights of people of color, said Shahid Buttar, Director of Grassroots Advocacy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization defending digital civil liberties.

By putting surveillance devices into the hands of homeowners, the app also could expose delivery workers and others to profiling and discrimination.

The website Motherboard reviewed more than 100 user-submitted posts in the Neighbors app between Dec. 6 and Feb. 5, and the majority of individuals reported as “suspicious” were people of color. The online publication concluded that video posts on Neighbors disproportionately include people of color, and descriptions often use racist language or make racist assumptions about the people shown.

“Before contracting with any corporate platform enabling expanded surveillance, any local government should first conduct a public examination — with opportunities for public comment— to ensure that it promotes the rights of communities, rather than undermining them,” Buttar said.

Police agencies should seek out and experiment with new tools to reduce crime. But oversight and public input are essential checks and balances.

Patrick Ishmael of the Show-Me Institute says a key question is whether a corporate-law enforcement relationship like this one brings with it any risks. Corporations have access to private information that some government officials would love to get their hands on, Ishmael said, pointing out that a Ring research and development team in Ukraine had access to an unencrypted archive of every video shot by a Ring camera.

“The police department joining Neighbors may not be the greatest concern itself, but one can imagine the relationship being abused,” said Ishmael, director of government accountability for the libertarian think tank.

Laws and regulations haven’t kept up with the breakneck pace of technological development. But now, with Kansas City and other local police departments using the Neighbors app and other new technologies, local governments should consider stealing a page from other cities’ playbooks on oversight.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of several jurisdictions across the country that have enacted laws to create civilian boards to monitor police surveillance technology.

The Cambridge measure requires local police to obtain civilian permission before purchasing surveillance equipment, to document the security rationale and privacy impacts of such purchases and to comply with an annual audit to reveal potential misuse or overuse. The ordinance includes checks on social media monitoring software such as the Neighbors app, surveillance and body cameras and automatic license plate readers.

Kansas City, Lenexa, Olathe, Overland Park, Shawnee and other cities considering using the Neighbors app should develop similar strategies to ensure that digital crime-fighting tools don’t come with unintended consequences.