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More eyes watching us? We need to talk first

How to use new video doorbell technology should be a matter of public debate and discussion from the start. So far, it hasn’t been.

Video doorbells could do a lot in the city’s fight against crime, Chicago Ald. Ray Lopez said. His own doorbell video captured a brick-throwing incident.
Ernie Field pushes the doorbell on his Ring doorbell camera on July 16 at his home in Wolcott, Conn. Amazon-owned doorbell camera company Ring is facing questions from a U.S. senator over its partnerships with police departments around the country.
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

When, in the world of privacy, did signing a virtual blank check get to be a good idea?

That’s what’s happening in Chicago, where police say they will soon announce a pilot program with the video doorbell company Ring to expand the Police Department’s surveillance capabilities. As Chicago Sun-Times reporter David Struett reported Wednesday, at least 25 suburban police departments have already signed up, including Arlington Heights, Cicero, Naperville and Aurora.

When new technology comes along, it’s always wise to investigate how it might make us safer. But the decision on how to use it should be a matter of public debate and discussion from the start.

So far, it hasn’t been.

For example, without thorough public discussion, Chicago police and the CTA already have gained access to facial-recognition technology. Police say it is seldom used, but that’s not good enough, especially because electronic doorbells could expand the use of facial recognition. The public needs to know exactly what the capabilities are — and have a chance to put sensible limits in place.

Using partnerships with Ring, more than 400 police departments across the country can get a look at what is going on in neighborhoods through video captured by millions of internet-connected electronic doorbells, which peer at everything in front of them, including houses across the street and elsewhere on the block.

The new high-resolution electronic eyes can keep tabs on what is going on in vast swaths of the city, creating a sort of digital neighborhood watch. If video provided to police by a homeowner helps solve a crime, that is a clear benefit.

But the use of something with so much impact on our privacy — and the ability to live our lives without constantly being recorded — should be considered an important public policy topic, not something worked out in a contract between police and a private company. Policymakers and the public should get a chance to weigh in. Protecting people’s privacy is the role of policymakers and government officials, not big tech companies, such as Amazon, which owns Ring.

Under the current plan, police could use Ring’s app to ask residents for video shared to its “Neighbors” feature, which has shown such things as package thieves and even a drive-by shooting in Englewood. To get the video, police could ask only for a limited time range and an area of up to a half of a square mile and would have to provide a case number. Ring then would forward the request to customers for their consent.

But the Ring doorbells are not carefully regulated. Though most undoubtedly face the street, others could easily be installed on back doors, where they could capture what neighbors are up to in their own backyards. Once those images are recorded, no one can be certain where that video information will turn up. And, of course, Ring can change its privacy policies at any point in the future.

Amazon already has facial recognition technology, which could at some point be incorporated into Ring. At that point, countless people who have been involved in the criminal justice system — even if they were exonerated — might find their own faces are a modern scarlet letter, identifying them as potential criminals wherever they go. Others might carry that scarlet letter simply through mistakes in the recognition technology.

Technology companies assure us they have privacy standards, but the flaw in that argument was painfully illustrated when Cambridge Analytica harvested raw data from 87 million Facebook users leading up to the 2016 presidential election. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to envision a world where video of our daily lives is just another item in electronic dossiers that gigantic data brokers assemble and sell, revealing where we go, who we meet, what we buy, what we do and even how we vote.

Moreover, data stored in all sorts of electronic systems have proved to be vulnerable to hacking and subsequent widespread dissemination.

State Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, who plans to introduce legislation to curb unfettered access to video gathered by electronic doorbells while providing police with greater ability to solve crimes, said she looks forward to a “robust discussion.” We hope that discussion happens.

As the Hong Kong protests continue, we hear many criticisms of China for becoming a surveillance state. We have to ask ourselves why we would allow that to happen here.

Chicago already has a network of about 45,000 surveillance cameras of its own. We are rapidly losing our ability to be anonymous in public places.

We need to sort all this out now in thoughtful policy discussions at which all interested parties are heard from — not wait until after abuses have occurred.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.