In October, a man walked down his Florida street to return a neighbor’s package that had been accidentally delivered to his address. But unbeknownst to this Good Samaritan, he was being observed by an Amazon Ring doorbell camera on the front porch, The Washington Post reported. Police told the Post that the Ring device sent an alert to the homeowner and his teenage son, who – believing there was an intruder – seized .45 caliber handguns and opened fire on a woman (not the parcel return) who was sitting in her car.
Surveillance advocates will claim that this act of violence had nothing to do with Ring and other connected doorbell cameras.
She wasn’t hurt, but it was close. Seven shots went through a child’s car seat and lodged in the back of her seat. If the car seat had not been empty, a child would likely have been killed.
Surveillance advocates will claim that this act of violence had nothing to do with Ring and other connected doorbell cameras. They blame the neighbors, the neighborhood, the guns. But we must face reality: Covering our neighborhoods with surveillance devices that foster a culture of suspicion is killing us all fewer secure.
Devices like Ring and the apps that come with it are designed to keep us on constant alert. They ping us with notifications, demanding our attention and offering “infinite scrolling” like Facebook and Instagram but for the crime in the neighborhood. With these devices, constant watching feels acceptable, expected, and even addicting. They present surveillance as the new normal, and with it fear.
The Neighbors app, connected to Amazon Ring, had more than 10 million users in 2020. US front doors are being smothered by millions of similar devices like Google Nest and Wyze. And tens of millions of people are posting videos and images from these cameras on neighborhood watch forums like Citizen App (which has literally rebranded itself from “Vigilante”) and NextDoor. A recent report by nonprofit research organization Data & Society found that homeowners are increasingly using Ring and other connected doorbell cameras to monitor and punish delivery drivers, turning front doors into humiliating performance reviews for underpaid gig workers. And this July, we learned that Amazon was violating our civil liberties by releasing Ring videos to the police without notification or a warrant.
Amazon is trying to cover up concerns by marketing Ring cameras as fun and practical. It even went so far as to launch an actual TV show, Ring Nation, on Amazon-owned MGM, featuring viral video from Ring cameras and other surveillance devices. It seems that more than any other company, it has pushed to make this extreme form of private surveillance mainstream.
By 2021, Amazon had reportedly partnered with around 2,000 police and fire departments, effectively giving police a simple, one-button portal to request video from Ring camera owners in exchange for officers’ help in marketing the company’s products Amazon. Meanwhile, Ring’s companion app, Neighbors, has been accused of fueling racial prejudice. Neighbors users share tips on “suspects” if they’re uncomfortable with people outside their homes; A 2019 Motherboard analysis found that the majority of Ring’s “suspicious person” reports target people of color.
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Ring’s lax security practices have allowed stalkers and hackers to break into people’s cameras in the past, allowing for a number of horrific incidents, such as a grown man spying on an 8-year-old girl in her bedroom or racially slurring one couple through another stranger through their hacked cam. Ring also seems to be making our neighborhoods more suspicious and turning neighbors against neighbors. Each additional camera sold by Ring Nation expands a system that makes racial profiling as easy as pressing a button. And we know that even unnecessary police interactions can turn tragic, especially for people of color.
Activists fear this type of video could even be used to harass or prosecute an abortion patient in a state that tries to prevent people from seeking or providing care. Anti-abortion opponents have long used surveillance to intimidate and control people who can become pregnant.
This dystopian vision of a private police camera on every home would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But since Amazon’s “Everything Store” realized that’s where its true strength lies to know everything, it has covered our homes, our neighborhoods, even our bodies with devices that are constantly watching and listening to us.
Amazon knows when its drivers are getting distracted in their vans and can even discipline them. It knows when a competitor has a hot new product and undercuts it. It knows if you sleep well and where your coffee table is. And it’s very good at winning; In 2021, Amazon sold as many doorbell cameras as its next four competitors combined, according to business intelligence firm Strategy Analytics.
But ultimately, this is not a problem that can be solved by individual consumer choices.
But ultimately, this is not a problem that can be solved by individual consumer choices. We need policymakers to take action to protect us all from the threat of sprawling surveillance empires.
The good news is that there is indeed some bipartisan dynamic to crack down on the monopoly and surveillance abuse of big tech surveillance capitalists. During the post-election lame duck session, Congress was scheduled to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would restrict the proprietary dealings and anti-competitive practices of the big tech giants that help lay the foundation for Amazon’s surveillance operation . Lawmakers should also improve and pass privacy laws to crack down on Amazon’s ruthless siphoning of confidential data. The Biden administration should prioritize a fully staffed Federal Communications Commission with the power to fix some damage caused by Amazon Ring drones and other Wi-Fi-connected devices. And the Federal Trade Commission should use its upcoming rulemaking to put real limits on the corporate surveillance that incites violence in our neighborhoods.
Humanity is at a crossroads. We must reject false promises of security and comfort in exchange for loss of privacy. Something as simple as investing in more streetlights can reduce so-called quality of life crimes like parcel theft and car break-ins without increasing racial profiling or increasing repressive surveillance. Real community security comes from helping each other, not spying on each other.