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SC police turn to Ring, other security cameras that critics call 'beyond dangerous'

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When a 19-year-old was shot to death in North Charleston on April 23, police say they were able to use a new technology to help solve the case — home security cameras. 

With the help of a resident's camera footage, investigators eventually determined that the shooting that claimed the life of Henry Trey Norris was self-defense. Norris tried to rob a male who then shot the would-be robber, police said. 

Residents around the Charleston area are increasingly turning to home security cameras to help keep their homes safe, track when packages arrive and see who's at the door. Business is booming.

Residents post photos and video from their cameras to neighborhood watch groups on social media. They speak about what they've seen happening in their neighborhoods. Prices have fallen and camera systems have become easy to install, bringing them into ever more homes.

Their spread has not gone unnoticed by law enforcement. 

East Side security surveillance video

A residential security camera captures the moments before a homicide on Aug. 8, 2019 on Hanover Street in downtown Charleston's East Side neighborhood. Police are increasingly turning to security camera footage to help them solve crimes. Provided

Some agencies, such as the Charleston and North Charleston police departments, are calling on residents to register their cameras with police. If a crime occurs in a neighborhood with registered cameras, officers can go to those homes and ask for footage they think might have captured the incident or place a suspect in the area. 

Others, like Mount Pleasant and Horry County police departments, have partnered with the camera and technology company Ring. They can request footage and interact with residents through the company's Neighbors app.

The partnerships have helped catch criminals and boost community engagement, police say.

But lawmakers and privacy advocates are increasingly worried that these cameras are ripe for abuse. There are no rules on how long police keep footage and what they do with video given to them. They worry that the footage could fall into the wrong hands and that police could use the cameras to spy on civilians.

The cameras, they say, are tools primed for abuse.  

Fighting crime

North Charleston Police Department launched a residential and business security camera registration program in January. The move came after officers noticed residents sharing surveillance footage on community Facebook pages, Deputy Chief Karen Cordray told The Post and Courier at the time.  

Since then, the program has seen about 200 cameras registered, Cordray said. 

"It's been going great," she said. 

Police maintain a list of all cameras registered with the department. When there's a crime in the area, officers can go back and approach residents who've registered cameras about viewing the footage. 

Registrations started off concentrated in a few neighborhoods but is expanding to cover more areas of the city, Cordray said.

"We're getting the most bang for our buck on people testing car doors," she said. "We can't do it by ourselves. We really need the community. There's wonderful partnerships. It is really paying off for us." 

The camera program has led to other positive changes. 

Officers have been able to use the cameras as an effective community engagement tool, Cordray said. Some residents have been inspired to start crime watch groups and people are getting more involved in public safety overall.   

Mount Pleasant police launched a partnership with Ring, which is owned by Amazon, on June 4, said Inspector Chip Googe, a spokesman for that department. 

Like North Charleston, Googe said his department has found the move to be most useful in getting information on car break-ins, burglaries and other property crimes. 

The Ring partnership doesn't give officers unfettered access to footage, he said. There are "four or five" officers that have access to the Ring portal where they can interact with civilian users. All but one of them is a supervisor. 

If there's an incident such as a car break-in, one of those officers can request footage from Ring users in the area, Googe said. 

"When we request a video, it's because we have an active case going on," he said.

And the Ring portal gives officers another way of communicating with residents. 

"People will talk about things happening in their community," Googe said. "It allows us to have that connection two ways. It gives us another tool of communication." 

Horry County Police Department spokeswoman Mikayla Moskov said her agency entered into the Ring partnership in January. The company provided cameras for officers to give away to residents. 

Like North Charleston and Mount Pleasant, officers in Horry County found that residents weren't reporting incidents they considered to be unimportant, such as a person coming into their driveway and pulling on a car door. 

Doorbell Cameras Police

Police departments have partnered with the camera and technology company Ring. File/AP

If nothing was taken, that incident might not get reported, Moskov said. That's changed since cameras were given out. 

"They're coming to us with that video," she said.

Chief Joseph Hill said camera footage can be useful in establishing timelines and determining if a suspect was near a crime scene. 

"People are now taking charge in their communities," Hill said. "It's kind of changed the game a little bit." 

Privacy concerns

Despite their use in helping to solve crimes, some lawmakers and privacy-oriented groups are alarmed by the rapid spread of cameras, and partnerships between technology companies and law enforcement agencies. 

Earlier this month, a consortium of 36 organizations authored an open letter to local, state and federal lawmakers, calling on them to investigate Ring's police partnerships. 

The letter alleges that the partnerships turn officers into salespeople for the company by promoting the doorbell camera system and that there is no oversight or accountability on how footage is used. 

"(It) creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely," the letter states. "In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or shared with other agencies like (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or the FBI."

In a statement, Ring said the company is proud to offer its services to cities, community groups, law enforcement agencies and nonprofit organizations. 

Plotted plant caper surveillance footage (copy) (copy)

Surveillance footage from a Charleston man's external security camera at his Wagener Terrace home in February 2018. File/Provided

"Ring has designed these programs in a way that upholds our user standards and keeps residents in control," according to the statement. 

According to the company, there are seven South Carolina law enforcement agencies with active Ring partnerships: Mount Pleasant, Moncks Corner, Walhalla, Horry County and Irmo police departments; Richland County Sheriff's Department; and North Myrtle Beach Department of Public Safety.  

Nationwide, 405 agencies have partnered with Ring, according to the company. 

S.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, called the Ring partnerships and programs like them "beyond dangerous." 

"Certainly, we can't tell private citizens what to do with their footage and their data, but it should be heavily regulated," Rutherford said. "Where they keep the data, who has access and how long they keep it are things that need to be regulated before law enforcement enters these agreements and not after."

Ring says it works hard to protect user privacy by never giving law enforcement direct access to users' cameras or devices, no user account information, no device locations and no direct access to users when officers make requests. 

"When making a video request to Ring, law enforcement must reference a relevant case, and can only request video recordings within a limited time and area," company CEO Jamie Siminoff wrote in August. "With each request, customers decide whether to share all relevant videos, review and select certain videos to share, take no action (decline), or opt-out of all future requests."

But Rutherford remains skeptical. 

"Unless the Legislature prohibits it, there's nothing that stops them," he said. "These are things that were never envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. I think that people need to know that the data they're collecting belongs to them. Be careful of turning it over without strict guidelines."

Responding to questions about privacy concerns, Cordray said the North Charleston Police Department only collects videos for use in the prosecution of reported crimes.

"Hanging on to videos without evidentiary value takes up storage and that can get expensive," she said. "That is why we have data retention limits on our (dashboard and body camera) data which are not evidence."

Lt. Peter Farrell, commander of the Charleston Police Department's Special Projects, said access to security camera video of any kind is limited to personnel conducting active investigations and that videos are not distributed outside the department. 

How long a video is kept depends on whether it becomes evidence in a criminal case, Farrell said. 

S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said he's not aware of any abuses of home camera systems by police and that he's heard only positive feedback from constituents who've shared footage with officers. 

He's more concerned about how companies are using customers' data. 

"It's the whole idea that someone's spying on you and able to share that with others," Grooms said. "These partnerships with local law enforcement ... I think it's absolutely fantastic. My concerns have always been how (footage) can be abused in hands of third-party, private companies."

newspaper theft (copy)

A man recorded on security camera video trying to steal a newspaper in downtown Charleston was arrested by police who had been parked nearby, watching. Provided

The lawmaker said he urges consumers to always be wary of the fine print when purchasing a new product or signing up for a service. 

"When they install a system, what have you really signed up for," Grooms said. "Are you actually signing away certain privacy rights so that a third party can then sell or actually have somebody else monitor what's going on at your home?"

Anyone who feels that their information is being abused should contact their state and local representatives, he said. 

"I would like to know about it," Grooms said.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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