color photograph of a ring security camera doorbell on the right side of a house's door
SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND - AUGUST 28: A doorbell device with a built-in camera made by home security company Ring is seen on Aug. 28, 2019, in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A new program in Albany County, New York, that provides the county sheriff’s office voluntary access to personal surveillance footage is facing backlash from criminal legal advocates. Local legislators have propped up the SafeCam program as an answer to curb rising gun violence, but advocates say the program deputizes neighbors to spy on each other with seemingly no boundaries.

A resolution outlining the program’s creation was unanimously approved by the Democratic-controlled Albany County legislature in early May to “improve neighborhood safety and strengthen law enforcement’s ability to investigate and prosecute crimes within the county.” Through SafeCam, residents can volunteer footage or images from their privately owned exterior security cameras if a crime occurs within the range of their cameras’ reach. 

“Our children should not be scared to walk on the streets,” said County Legislator Beroro Efekoro, whose district is in the city of Albany, during a May 8 legislator meeting. “It shall send a strong message that we are intentional in Albany County about fighting crime. We all have a right to safe streets, and that we must protect.”

Civil liberties advocates say such a program is no way to address gun violence. From 2016 to 2021, violent crimes involving a firearm in the city of Albany rose about 136%, from 103 to 243, according to a 2022 data report by the New York state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

“I don’t think that any kind of surveillance situation is going to help,” said Melanie Trimble, the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Capital Region. “I think that comes to other methods in order to reduce this type of crime … If [law enforcement is going to have access to video footage], it should be transparent. It should protect people’s privacy rights, and making private citizens middlemen in doing police work is just a very bad idea.”

Trimble and other advocates say that a lack of transparency and thoroughness regarding the limitations of the program raises concerns about potential violations of protections against unwarranted searches, as well as the potential for targeted enforcement. The Albany County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the list of concerns raised by advocates.

“When you’re deputizing people to basically contribute to law enforcement concerns by taking the images that they’ve kept captured on their camera and turning them over to the police department, it becomes rather dystopian,” Trimble said. “It’s a slippery slope. It could lead to neighbors using surveillance that they capture to bring charges against neighbors and friends.”

Privacy concerns

Trimble raised questions about how the placement of cameras could give access to surveillance of neighboring properties, equating some applications of the program to violations of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. 

“That drops out when you involve a middleman,” she said.

Buffalo, New York, instituted a version of Albany’s SafeCam program in 2015. Trimble said she had not heard about those programs. Statistics from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services suggest the program did not curb the rise in violent crimes involving firearms in Buffalo.

The Albany program, as outlined by the county legislature, includes no guidance on limits to access beyond stating that residents can volunteer footage from exterior cameras to aid in investigations. Trimble said she is worried volunteering for the program would give police a database of local personal surveillance files they can request through a court order even without the consent of residents. 

“Once you register your camera as a citizen, the sheriff is going to have access to everything that’s captured on those cameras,” she said. “While it seems to be voluntary, we want people to know it is really not completely voluntary because the sheriff will know that the camera exists and that they can seek those records without your permission.”

Adriel Colón-Casiano, a criminal defense attorney based in Albany, noted that parts of the SafeCam program could be subject to citizen requests through New York’s Freedom of Information Law.  

“If it is used in a criminal proceeding, let’s say somebody commits a crime, and the only evidence that [law enforcement] has of this crime they get through [the program], [law enforcement] will have to disclose the existence of the [SafeCam database] list,” he said, “and that the list was relied upon in discovery proceedings, or the case is going to be thrown out.”

Sharing files with other law enforcement agencies

The program could also pose a risk to migrants facing fears of deportation, as it is unclear which law enforcement agencies could have access to SafeCam-obtained surveillance files. Potential cooperation with immigration enforcement agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would also call into question the city of Albany’s self-proclaimed status as a sanctuary city.

“Other agencies—ICE or the IRS or the FBI—they’re gonna essentially piggyback off of this to investigate people,” Colón-Casiano said, adding immigrants will now have to worry about their neighbors being deputized to investigate them.

“There are really no barriers,” he added. “It can be as rigid as it wants to be. It can be as vile as it wants to be.”

Proposed state legislation could prevent unsanctioned cooperation between local agencies like the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and federal law enforcement. The New York For All Act would prohibit state and local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws, funneling people into ICE custody, and sharing sensitive information with federal immigration authorities, as well as limit ICE’s and Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) access to state information databases.

“We’ve found that immigrant communities around the state are frightened and not willing to call the police when a crime occurs because they’re so concerned about being brought in front of immigration officials and possibly put into deportation hearings,” Trimble said.

The state of surveillance in the U.S.

Programs like SafeCam exist in municipalities all over the country. In some instances, vendors partner with law enforcement agencies to cooperate in criminal investigations.

Amazon’s Ring, which sold 1.4 million units in 2021 and had 10 million active users on its Neighbors app in 2020, partners with several law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to provide security footage in assistance with criminal investigations. More than 2,000 law enforcement agencies were a part of Ring’s cooperation program dubbed the “Neighbors Public Safety Service” in 2021.

Federal lawmakers have grown increasingly worried about the practice.

An inquiry made by Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts in 2022 revealed that Ring provided law enforcement with user footage through a process that does not require user consent under an “emergency circumstance exception” 11 times between January and July last year.

Some of this footage is paired with facial recognition software, which the privacy advocacy group Fight for the Future has noted consistently shows misidentification of people of color, women, and transgender people. The group noted in a 2019 open letter to federal officials that the use of this technology further compounds existing civil liberties concerns and expands suspected criminality centered on racial profiling and gender bias. 

“We have a Constitution that protects us from different kinds of police interference, overbroad police surveillance, and these technologies are really stretching the bounds of our rights,” Colón-Casiano said.