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Seward quietly joined the ranks of hundreds of communities nationwide whose police force has partnered with the Amazon-owned home security company Ring earlier this month. The move, apparently finalized Oct. 15, came with no public fanfare, but its discovery early this week generated a storm of online criticism and discussion as well as remarks at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

Ring sells smart doorbells equipped with cameras, and has quickly become a major name in the home security business. The devices interface with a suite of smartphone software, allowing users to stream video to their phones. The company also offers cloud-based video archiving for an additional fee.

The agreement with the Seward Police Department, which fits on a single page, allows the police department to ask Ring users to share videos through a law enforcement-oriented version of the company’s Neighbors app called the Neighbors Portal. The vanilla version of Neighbors allows users to see reports and videos shared by other users in their area.

The agreement commits the department to only two conditions. First, the department is required to “maintain appropriate access to Neighbors Portal for [department] personnel, including ensuring credentials are not shared beyond the [department’s] law enforcement personnel.” Second it requires that the department “use Neighbors Portal only for legitimate law enforcement purposes.”

The Seward Journal acquired the agreement through a request for public records.

Seward’s participation was first reported in a lengthy opinion piece by Sarah Paulus published on Alaska Politics and Elections.

“Basically they have this Neighbors app and they give law enforcement the opportunity to create like their own profile essentially,” SPD Sgt. Karl Schaefermeyer told the Seward Journal. “So we can talk directly to people who are using the app. They can immediately share with us any video that they feel is [significant].”

But SPD’s access via Neighbors is limited to those videos that app users agree to share with law enforcement, Schaefermeyer said, an assertion supported by Ring’s terms of service, its privacy policy, the text of the agreement and reports from national media outlets.

“There’s no real-time viewing: We can’t see out people’s windows. It’s only what the end user chooses to share with us,” Schaefermeyer said.

The exception would be videos for which the police secure search warrants, Schaefermeyer acknowledged. However, the effectiveness of this approach could be limited by basic operating features of Ring and Neighbors, as described by the company.

Unless a user shares a video on Neighbors or pays for the video archiving service, all Ring videos are deleted soon after they have been streamed to the user’s phone. If the service performs the way Ring says it does, the only videos that could be seized through a search warrant are those that a user has already shared via the Neighbors app or those archived for paying users.

Agreements of this kind have been the subject of reporting by national media outlets, such as the Washington Post, which in April reported that over 400 local police forces had forged such agreements. In some of those cases, the Post found that Ring had supplied police departments with free Ring devices to hand out.

Sgt. Karl Schaefermeyer told the Seward Journal that no goods or money changed hands in the case of the Seward Police Department. City Manager Scott Meszaros said the same thing at Monday night’s council meeting. Both men further added that the city had refrained from publicizing the agreement to avoid the appearance that the city is endorsing a particular company.

Criticism of the agreement was loudest on social media, particularly in the Seward Crime Talk and Lost and Found group on Facebook. One user posted a link to an article by Sarah Paulus at Alaska Politics and Elections, apparently the first report of the Seward Police Department’s involvement with Ring.

Although it was the first report, Paulus’ article contains a number of unsubstantiated claims about the nature of Ring’s agreements with law enforcement, including the claims that Ring makes videos available “upon request.” If Ring abides by its own terms of service and privacy policy, this is not the case. Paulus did not respond to a message from the Journal pointing out the inconsistency.

The post drew a mix of responses, some of them based on misunderstandings of the service.

“Big brother in your home without asking!” one user wrote. In fact, the service requires a user to acquire a Ring device and then to share videos with law enforcement voluntarily. 

The same user also speculated without evidence that Amazon or Ring had bribed the police department: “How much money was offered to Seward police for the venture? Cause it’s kinda funny how money can make it all right.”

Some expressed concern that the agreement had gone into effect without the approval of council. Others scoured news reports and Ring’s various legal assurances for explanations of the product and its use by law enforcement.

In spite of the hubbub, it remains unclear how much use, if any, the program will see in Seward.

“We just wanted to give the people in town as much access to report to us as possible. It’s just another tool for people to use to let us know what’s going on,” Schaefermeyer said. “Whether people actually use it – I signed up for the app myself. I haven’t seen any activity.”