Our Suburban Panopticon
A new show, produced by Amazon's MGM & Amazon's Big Fish Entertainment will feature footage from Amazon's Ring cameras.
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There are currently millions of internet-connected doorbell cameras and microphones on front doors throughout the United States, capturing everything from the innocuous daily routines of unsuspecting people to the occasional porch creep.
Now this suburban panopticon is being commodified into a television show, “Ring Nation” hosted by comedian and former NSA employee Wanda Sykes. The show will be produced by MGM and Big Fish Entertainment. It’s a grim reminder of Amazon’s ever-fattening monopoly. Amazon owns Ring. Amazon acquired MGM in May 2021. Amazon also owns the production company Big Fish Entertainment, which MGM acquired in 2018. Though it hasn’t officially been announced, it is expected to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
Doorbell cameras like Ring aren’t just to show you who’s at the door. They’re motion activated with promises from Amazon to eventually capture footage 24/7. So, the fundamental nature and selling point of doorbell cameras is an inherently negative one—that everyone’s suspicious and potentially in danger. They’re suspicious of their neighbors or their delivery drivers. That they’re constantly in need of video footage of a criminal that could show up at any time. They live in a permanent state of fear. A doorbell camera purportedly provides an additional layer of security. It’s a ThunderShirt for suburbanites.
“Amazon is now in the business of selling ‘surveillance as a service’ and using this new television show to normalize it,” Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement and professor at American University Washington College of Law, said. “The normalization of commercial surveillance, making light of human moments captured on film, hides the data collection and extraction involved. The television show takes private moments in and around our homes and makes their exposure normal when it is anything but normal. We have never chosen to live in a web of corporate surveillance, but this show encourages it and glorifies it.”
You don’t need—nor would you want—a doorbell camera to capture memories in your front yard. Your camera—handheld, cellphone, DSLR, whatever—already does that with a much more powerful lens and from a better angle. People don’t buy a security camera to fill up a scrapbook. They buy one for surveillance.
But Amazon is trying to spin its burgeoning surveillance apparatus as an essential tool for capturing life’s precious moments. “The series will feature clips such as neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions, and silly animals,” MGM’s press release said.
The issue here is, most viral doorbell camera clips feature people other than the homeowner. Sure, generally speaking, if you’re outside in the United States, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. But even if a clip doesn’t end up on the show (and hopefully the show’s crew will get consent from everyone involved), the proliferation of viral doorbell camera clips makes me generally uneasy. You should be able to deliver a package or a pizza or literally do anything at all (that isn’t harming someone) with your life without being viral video fodder, if that’s what you prefer. Maybe we don’t need to see Barbara in Iowa’s Uber eats driver smelling her lilac bush after dropping off a pastrami sandwich and soggy fries.
Ferguson warns people not to be fooled by Amazon’s PR spin.
“Step back and think about what they are selling. Ring doorbells are home monitoring surveillance devices. The Neighbors App is selling collective surveillance of communities. Echo devices are little wiretaps in our home. Everything we read (Kindle), buy (Amazon.com), or need for health (One Medical) is not just tracked but analyzed with predictive analytics,” he said. “Even the delivery trucks and drones have cameras watching us. If the government were surveilling us like Amazon does, we would think we were in a dystopia. And with the Ring tv show, Amazon is taking dystopia Prime to prime time.”
Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, shares Ferguson’s concerns.
“The show runs the risk of making a technology which is ultimately punitive and coercive, into something that seems fun. But for every incidentally collected video of grandpa slipping on ice, there are hundreds of moments either you, and the people who walk by your house, would not want to be preserved in video or audio and sitting on a company’s servers somewhere,” Guariglia said. “Ring cameras have the potential to capture both video and audio from people’s private moments—a conversation with a spouse drifting through a window, a phone call with your doctor taken on the sidewalk because you don’t want to have it in front of your family—these are far more likely the things that Amazon’s servers will be full of than the ‘funniest home videos’ this show attempts to sell Ring cameras as.”
Because of Ring’s sordid history, the underlying privacy and 4th Amendment issues can’t be ignored. Amazon & Ring partner with thousands of police departments in the United States to share footage. In 2019, The Intercept reported that Amazon had “crafted plans to use facial recognition software and its ever-expanding network of home security cameras to create AI-enabled neighborhood ‘watch lists’ which, like other AI-based policing technologies, were likely prone to racial bias. In July of this year, it was revealed Amazon repeatedly gave police Ring camera footage without the owners knowledge or permission.
“Anything you do captured by a Ring doorbell is at best a warrant away from being revealed. The proliferation of such cameras is changing notions of private space and deserves a tough public debate, not a gimmicky television show,” Ferguson said.
The problems aren’t just fueled by the police, either. In 2020, multiple Ring employees were found to have improperly accessed footage from users cameras. And due to lax security, many Ring owners have had their cameras hacked, with some being harassed by their hacker. The proliferation of doorbell cameras and other consumer surveillance devices create much broader societal implications when examined in aggregate.
“The problem with Ring cameras is not what they sell — a sense of security — but the scale and commodification of a network of personal data. One camera in your home is one thing. Ten thousand cameras in everyone’s home is another. What the television show does is make that rather terrifying surveillance capacity something funny or normal, when it should be of real concern,” Ferguson said.
Ultimately (and obviously), this show is a ploy to sell more Ring cameras. Time will tell whether this show will be well-received, and Amazon will surely throw a ton of money behind promoting it. But will this PR spin be effective?
“For a long time, Ring seems to have been pivoting marketing materials to shift from ‘expand police surveillance on your own dime’ to ‘this is a great tool check in on your cute dog or capture life’s most heartfelt moments,’ Guariglia said. “Given the public’s distrust of large technology companies and the overwhelming feeling that something has to be done to restore privacy to people, I’m not convinced that this ploy will work.”
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