Amazon’s Ring doorbell videos make America less safe from crime
In October, a man walked down the street in Florida to return a neighbor’s package that had been accidentally delivered to his address. But unbeknownst to this good Samaritan, he was being watched 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 — assuming it was an intruder — grabbed .45-caliber handguns and opened fire on a woman (not the package that returned) sitting in the car her.
Proponents of surveillance would argue that this act of violence had nothing to do with Ring and other networked doorbell cameras.
She was not injured, but there was a close encounter. Seven rounds blew through a child seat and lodged in the back of her seat. If the car seat had not been empty, a child would probably have been killed.
Proponents of surveillance would argue that this act of violence had nothing to do with Ring and other networked doorbell cameras. They want to blame the neighbors, the neighborhood, the guns. But we must face reality: Covering our neighborhoods in surveillance devices that foster a culture of suspicion makes us all less secure.
Devices like Ring and the apps associated with them are designed to keep us constantly on our toes. They ping us with alerts, demanding our attention and offering “infinite scrolling” like Facebook and Instagram, but for neighborhood crime. These devices make looking at each other feel acceptable, expected, and even addictive all the time. They present surveillance as the new normal, and fear along with it.
The Neighbors app, associated with Amazon Ring, boasted more than 10 million users in 2020. Front doors across the US are smothered in millions of similar devices, such as Google Nest and Wyze. And tens of millions of people post videos and photos from those cameras to neighborhood watch forums like Citizen App (which literally renamed itself from “Vigilante”) and NextDoor. A recent report by nonprofit research organization Data & Society found that homeowners are increasingly using Ring and other networked doorbell cameras to monitor and punish delivery drivers, turning doorsteps into humiliating performance reviews for underpaid gig workers. And in July, we learned that Amazon is violating our civil liberties by handing over Ring video to the police without notice or warrants.
Amazon tries to hide concerns by promoting Ring cameras as fun and convenient. 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 feels like more than any other company it has pushed to make this extreme form of private surveillance feel mainstream.
By 2021, Amazon had reportedly formed partnerships with about 2,000 police and fire departments, effectively giving law enforcement a simple push-button portal to request video from Ring camera owners in exchange for officers’ help promoting Amazon’s products. Meanwhile, Ring’s companion app, Neighbors, has been accused of reinforcing racial bias. Neighborhood users share “suspicious people” tips when they feel uncomfortable with people outside their homes; a 2019 Motherboard analysis found that the majority of Ring’s “suspicious person” reports target people of color.
Ring’s lax security practices of late have allowed stalkers and hackers to break into people’s cameras, enabling a series of horrifying incidents, like a grown man spying on an 8-year-old girl in her bedroom or another stranger yelling racist slurs to a couple through their hacked camera. Ring also seems to make our neighborhoods more suspicious, turning neighbor against neighbor. 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 worry that 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-abortionists have long used surveillance to intimidate and control people who might become pregnant.
This dystopian vision of a private police camera on every home would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But ever since Amazon’s “everything store” realized that its true power comes from know everything, it has covered our homes, our neighborhoods, even our bodies in devices that are constantly watching and listening to us.
Amazon knows when its drivers are distracted in its vans, and it can even discipline them. It knows when a competitor has a new item and undercuts it. It knows if you sleep well and where your coffee table is. And it is very good at winning; in 2021, Amazon sold as many doorbell cameras as the 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 actually bipartisan momentum toward cracking down on Big Tech surveillance capitalists’ monopoly and surveillance abuses. During the post-election lame duck session, Congress should pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would limit the Big Tech giants’ self-dealing and anti-competitive practices that help lay the foundation for Amazon’s surveillance operation. Lawmakers should also improve and pass privacy laws to crack down on Amazon’s reckless vacuuming of intimate data. The Biden administration should prioritize a fully staffed Federal Communications Commission, which has the authority to address some harm from Amazon Ring drones and other Wi-Fi-connected devices. And the Federal Trade Commission should use its upcoming rulemaking to set 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 convenience in exchange for the loss of privacy. Something as simple as investing in more street lights could reduce so-called quality-of-life crimes like package theft and car break-ins without exacerbating racial profiling or overloading oppressive surveillance. Real social security comes from helping each other, not spying on each other.