Consumer surveillance cameras are everywhere now, and they’re capturing moments we otherwise would never have known happened.
Across the US, consumers are canvassing their communities with a new type of device that’s changing civic life. Camera-equipped doorbells and other home surveillance devices, made by companies like Ring, are documenting facets of suburban existence that once went unnoticed.
For years, citizens have used smartphones to monitor their neighborhoods, especially instances of police misconduct or abuse. But pointing a smartphone at authorities is an active choice. Homeowners use cameras and their ilk to passively monitor their neighborhoods and each other. Instead of capturing the moments citizens intentionally choose to record, Ring cameras log whatever may happen in front of them. And local news outlets are happily passing it along.
Around two months ago, I set up a Google Alert to track mentions of Ring in the press. I expected primarily to receive news about the surveillance company’s flourishing relationship with law enforcement. Ring, which Amazon acquired last year for over $830 million, has partnered with over 400 police departments in the US to date. In exchange for promoting Ring’s devices and its associated crime watch app Neighbors, cops are given access to a portal where they can ask citizens for footage from their cameras that may be connected to a crime without a warrant. The arrangements have come under growing scrutiny in recent months, as reporters and activists have criticized their lack of transparency and potential for privacy abuses. Public records obtained by journalists also show that Ring tightly controls how police officials can portray its dealings with the company.
As the daily Google reports began flowing into my inbox, however, I was surprised to learn that like police, local journalists have found their own purpose for Ring videos: making content. Reporters—especially those working on the internet—have long mined social media sites to inform their stories. And locals news outlets have always relied on citizens to share photos and videos of events that take place in the area. But Ring cameras, which are motion-activated and can detect activity up to 30 feet away, generate reams of videos from a suburbia that is more heavily surveilled than ever before, even as crime rates reach historic lows.
Many of the Ring stories I came across are mostly harmless, or even playful. Plenty concern wildlife: There’s the woodpecker in Arizona that scared itself activating a Ring doorbell camera, the cougar who slinked across a Utah man’s porch, and the “mountain lion” that was really a baby deer. A snake and a lizard have made memorable appearances on Ring cameras as well.
This type of animal fodder is technically not permitted on Neighbors, because only “crime and safety related” topics are allowed. But people post the clips elsewhere, and media outlets happily snap them up, helping in the process to normalize a world in which homeowners monitor their property at all times. Who wouldn’t want to capture the local “insanely large house cat” with their new $100 Ring doorbell?
Many outlets have used footage from Ring and other consumer cameras to report on crimes like burglary and car theft—the types of offenses Ring says its products are meant to document and ultimately deter. At Amazon’s annual product announcement event yesterday, senior vice president for devices and services David Limp made the familiar pitch that Ring cameras reduce crime in communities, a claim critics have questioned. Conveniently for Amazon, Ring devices can also help catch people who swipe Amazon packages, or, say, steal a child’s bike after making a delivery.
But news reports show that Ring cameras also capture events far stranger than package theft. These incidents aren’t necessarily criminal, but could easily make someone more fearful about living in their own community. There’s the person who dropped old television sets onto people’s doorsteps while wearing one on their head, for instance, captured on a Nest camera, the Ring competitor owned by Google. Or the young girl who stared straight into a Ring device in the middle of the night at a house in Florida, holding what looks like a puppy. “Strange things happen at night,” the homeowner told WBBH-TV.
Some of the more interesting Ring videos, at least to me, are those which capture experiences that otherwise might have been solitary. Two that stand out are the viral clip of a 5-year-old reciting the Pledge of Allegiance by himself in his yard, and one where a UPS delivery driver straightens an American flag. They each allow right-wing outlets like Fox News, which picked up the footage of the boy, to imply that patriotism isn’t just a public performance. Other private moments Ring devices have captured are far more personal, like two friends clinging to one another in a doorway during a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, this summer, which killed nine people and injured dozens of others.
Ring devices have captured several other instances of gun violence, including when six police officers were shot after entering a home across the street from a camera-equipped residence in Philadelphia. The footage shows one law enforcement official, who appears wounded, tumbling down the front stairs. Other officers later took cover behind nearby cars, seemingly unaware they were being filmed.
Many of these clips raise questions about whether Ring devices are being used to monitor other people’s property or public spaces, which the company told The Intercept earlier this year the products are “not intended to be and should not be” used for. But the cameras face outward, and with motion activation up to more than two dozen feet, they’re bound to capture citizens walking on public streets, especially in denser areas. Homeowners can then label those people as suspicious, and upload videos of them to Neighbors.
In an email, Yassi Shahmiri, Ring’s director of communications, said owners can program some Ring cameras to block out certain areas they don’t want filmed or refrain from detecting motion in them. “With customizable motion zones, wired Ring devices give users the option to draw specific areas where they would like motion to be detected and ignore areas they do not want to monitor,” she wrote. Of course, these are settings users would need to opt in to using. In its installation guide, Ring also notes there may be “legal restrictions in your jurisdiction for pointing your devices at areas that are outside of your property.”
But if a Ring camera does capture someone else’s property, or an innocent person walking by, whose right is it to turn that footage into #content? Should simply walking up to someone’s door potentially land you on the nightly news? As these devices become more popular, researchers, journalists, and normal people who buy the cameras should demand answers to all sorts of privacy questions from Amazon. Ring, for its part, has appropriated footage from its customers’ devices to make its own media as well. Earlier this year, the company was criticized for including videos of people in its Facebook advertisements without their consent, and encouraging citizens to identify and report the suspected criminals to police.
Often at the heart of Ring news reports is one thing: passivity. Because many of the videos were filmed when the cameras owners were out of town, at work, or sleeping, there’s little they could have done to change the course of what transpired in them, at least in the moment. The man whose camera filmed a girl with a dog at almost 4 am couldn’t go and ask if she was OK. The feeling is best encapsulated in a clip from North Carolina earlier this year, in which a Ring camera captured a tornado destroying the residence it was installed on. The couple who owned the house, who weren’t inside, watched as it was ravaged—at least until the connection was lost.