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New Jersey’s former attorney general on Ring cameras and facial recognition

Anne Milgram stopped by The Vergecast

Facial Recognition Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

In this week’s Vergecast, former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram stopped by the studio to talk with Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel and me, senior reporter Colin Lecher.

As Nilay notes, Milgram, who also co-hosts the podcast Stay Tuned with Preet Bharara, is “the first cop we’ve ever had on the show,” and she gave some thoughtful responses to questions about surveillance, predictive policing, and more.

“We all, I think, have the right reaction, which is we don’t want to use data that’s biased or we don’t want to have problems,” Milgram says. “And yet in our personal lives, we give access to a huge amount of information and a lot of it is not public.”

The rise of home security systems like Amazon’s Ring camera have raised serious questions about privacy, and Milgram weighed in on the issue. Below is an excerpt for that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nilay Patel: For the exterior of our house, we have some cameras. That’s a super popular category. Amazon’s not selling hundreds of them, or thousands of them, because people don’t like them. People love them. How does that map together? It seems so dangerous to say, “There’s a camera everywhere, and that it will help the police make better decisions. We can deploy the police based on what we see on cameras in real time.”

Anne Milgram: I think about this all the time because I think, Colin’s asking great questions about these questions of bias in the data and we all, I think, have the right reaction, which is we don’t want to use data that’s biased or we don’t want to have problems. And yet, in our personal lives, we give access to a huge amount of information and a lot of it is not public. So your cameras: the external area we could argue is public, but internal is not. But you’re still giving access to the companies to have access to your personal data. And it is a little creepy. That’s not the technical legal term for it. But there’s a way in which, when you think about some of what China’s doing with facial recognition, and trying to basically, literally, track people in communities, you could see where it could end.

And one of the things about Ring is that, what has been fascinating to me, is that — and some of this is my beef with their marketing, frankly — is the marketing around, “Oh, we’ll make you safer, and we’re going to report everything out to the police departments.” It also gives people a sense of being unsafe in a way that’s not true. And so when you look at the micro data in, for example, New York City, when they do micro-polling around “how do people feel?” Do they feel safe in their communities? How do they feel about their police? It’s a fascinating thing, which will not surprise you, which is that people generally say, “Yeah, New York is really safe. My neighborhood is great, but the city itself is really dangerous.” Because what leads the evening news? Rape, robbery, murder. What do people fear? All of us fear for folks.

And I think things like Ring, when they’re marketed around crime and reporting back, and they’re pushing out the crime stats, give people a sense maybe that they’re not actually as safe as they are. When in fact... I have a beef with the fact that there are four of the most dangerous cities in the world in America. And I have a huge problem with that because I think we actually know how to police cities, and we know how to reduce crime significantly. And those are all poor cities, there’s no reason that they’re not safe. So I have a beef with that, but overall, we are an extraordinarily safe country. And so I think they’re marketing off people’s fears. You have cameras because of safety and security. You want to know who’s coming near your house, or maybe you want to know who stole your Amazon package, which is apparently a big use right now.

The CEO of Ring has been on the show. Jamie speaks with religious fervor about the mission of his company, which is decreasing crime. That’s what, at least, he’s selling, that’s what he believes. I think it is all but impossible to be that aggressive about it, unless you actually believe it.

So that may be his mission, but if we’re really honest about it, again, the goal should be to prevent crime. And this is, I would argue, a failing of American policing, is that we’ve become very reactive. Again, it’s the 911 call loop, and it’s somebody report[ing] a crime. Even if you capture somebody stealing your Amazon package, that crime has been committed. And so unless your Ring is connected directly to the police department—

Which seems like the goal.

Even if they are, I just want you to know this: the officer’s not coming. Let me be clear. Let’s be totally honest about it. Because I’m busy prioritizing where they should be.