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  1. Hernando

Hernando County sheriff hopes working with Amazon-owned Ring's 'new neighborhood watch' app will help solve crimes

The Neighbors app has generated excitement among law enforcement, though critics have raised privacy concerns.
The Neighbors app, developed by Amazon-owned security camera manufacturer Ring, lets users upload footage of crime or suspicious activity. A map on the app displays reports from the past 30 days.
Published Feb. 5

BROOKSVILLE — Strange and mundane happenings around Brooksville and Spring Hill make their way to Neighbors, a security-meets-social-media app that markets itself as "the new neighborhood watch."

Over the past few weeks, local posts on the app have ranged from residents shaken by strangers loitering on their porches to clips of startled housecats darting across lawns. Deliverymen, county utilities workers and Jehovah's Witnesses have been quickly pointed out as such in comments sections. Some users have exposed the coyotes stalking their backyards; one warned of a neighbor's loose dog.

"Missing a chicken?" one post asked, with a picture of the fowl in question.

The free app, made by the Amazon-owned security camera manufacturer Ring and available on iOS and Android, lets residents upload photos and videos captured on their security cameras. Then the posts are visible to users with addresses within a few miles. It's a hodgepodge of information, but it's one that the Hernando County Sheriff's Office thinks will prove useful. Last month, the agency announced a partnership with the app, through which it'll push information and look for details that could help solve crimes.

"We get a lot of leads by video that we capture from people's homes," Sheriff Al Nienhuis said. "I think it was a natural progression."

The Sheriff's Office doesn't pay Ring anything for the partnership, said Nienhuis, who sees the app as a two-way communication tool for the Sheriff's Office. Deputies can notify residents of nearby criminal activity or arrests, and because the app hones in on users' locations, they can target a more specific audience than they can through Facebook. Users don't have to own one of Ring's miniature cameras to sign up for the app.

How residents make their concerns and videos available to the Sheriff's Office — and each other — is even more significant, Nienhuis said.

The posted videos alone could help develop or rule out suspects in crimes, said Detective Shawn Galarza, who helped spearhead the partnership between the Sheriff's Office and the tech company. But the partnership gives the Sheriff's Office new ways of looking for the public's help, too.

If it's investigating a string of car break-ins on the same street, for example, the Sheriff's Office can note that to Ring, who can send a notification to that street's users for footage from their cameras. It would give residents the option to share footage from a given time frame with deputies, or to decline. The partnership doesn't give the Sheriff's Office unlimited reach, Galarza said — it still needs permission or a warrant to access video that isn't publicly shared.

Meanwhile, the app could also keep the Sheriff's Office from having to use resources unnecessarily, Galarza said. Its social nature may help users resolve issues before they ever call deputies.

"Maybe somebody calls in a call for service for a suspicious person," he said. "We may not need to send a deputy out to that home, if a neighbor can say, 'No, that's just my lawn guy.' "

Ring has had a string of recent public success. Last year, Amazon bought the company for $1 billion. In January, it got a viral boost when a doorbell camera caught a man licking a family's front porch intercom for hours. The company has developed partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the country.

But the technology has attracted criticism. In January, The Intercept reported that a Ring research and development team in Ukraine had access to an unencrypted archive of every video shot by a Ring camera. A recent Washington Post column called the combination of privacy worries, developing facial recognition technology and law enforcement involvement "a potential civil liberties nightmare."

Nienhuis said he will keep an eye on those concerns, though he believes they're inherent to the intersection of security and technology.

"When you recruit from the human race and you're on the cutting edge with technology, it's hard to get it perfect," he said.

As for the Jehovah's Witnesses, the door-to-door salesmen and the stray chickens? Nienhuis knows the partnership will give the Sheriff's Office a lot of data to wade through, much of it unhelpful in crime-solving.

"We may get a lot of stuff we now have to go through," he said. "But if we've had a significant crime in a neighborhood, I'd rather go through 100 videos of cats and maybe have a video of a suspect's car than not see anything."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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