Your “Ring” doorbell is probably a snitch.
In more than 400 locations around the country, police have quietly teamed up with Amazon, which bought the video doorbell and security firm last year. That number is rapidly expanding nationwide. As a result, police now have the ability to access video from “Ring” doorbells and security cameras through Amazon’s “Neighborhood Watch” program, which allows individual users to store footage online; to exchange it; to swap suspicions about activities and neighbors and to generally act like a bunch of medieval villagers startled by the sudden appearance of a stranger.
Ring’s “Neighbors” feed is a pastiche of video and reports, about a quarter of which are crime related. The rest deal with lost pets; “suspicious” activities and visitors; exchanged images from video doorbells, smart phones and other devices; and a leavening of police reports, security tips and other notes from local authorities. It seems tailor-made to stir the paranoid soul.
Among the troubling aspects of the system is its complete lack of anonymity — no faces are obscured and no other nods to individual privacy are practiced. And if authorities want video that has not been publicly shared, “Neighbors” has a “Neighborhood Portal” application which allows them to pinpoint and automatically send an email request to any “Ring” owner who has not posted video from any specific time and place that might be of interest to them. All in the interest of neighborhood security, of course. You are a good citizen, aren’t you? You would want to report any suspicious activity to the authorities, wouldn’t you?
This is most disturbing due to its private nature. Because “Ring,” its Amazon owner, and the individual producers and sharers of these doorbell videos are not government entities, constitutional prohibitions may not apply, save to government uses; this is a private workaround of many legal protections against surveillance, creating a completely new kind of snooping which is rapidly spreading across the country. The affronts it might create to an individual’s privacy might have to be handled through civil actions, which are expensive and time-consuming. Nor is that all.
Our new house is to be a “smart home,” replete with the latest in connectivity and convenience. We’ll be able to adjust our thermostat from the moon, order groceries on the fridge, talk to Siri about anything, monitor our water consumption and, of course, watch the neighborhood from the front door without leaving the office. Except we won’t.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t need to know how often I do laundry. He doesn’t need to know what my favorite kind of steak seasoning is, how much water I use or how cool my house is in midsummer. And no one needs to use my doorbell to watch what my neighbors get up to on a daily basis. Not Amazon. Not the police. Not anyone.
The reaction from the sales staff when I shared these sentiments about living with a robot connected to who-knows-what was illuminating. They were perplexed, then incredulous. Why would I choose not to be connected to such an awesome and all-capable system? The thought that there could be pervasive issues of privacy didn’t even occur. And that is the most grievous challenge posed by the interconnected world of tomorrow: its promises are attractive and its menace is hidden in a cloud of words and wishful thinking.
If a guy in a red suit with horns and a tail showed up at your front door tomorrow with a suitcase full of cash and a shiny new Corvette and promised that both, plus a million dollar mansion, a private yacht in San Tropez and the income to sustain it all could be yours, what would you say? Of course there’s the small matter of an agreement first; call it “Terms and Conditions.” Just initial here.
Too obvious? Okay, how about if the guy was wearing a $600 Italian suit and had a nametag that said “Steve?” And all he promised was instant access to unlimited information and entertainment, plus you could order in almost anything in the world, literally without lifting your finger? Way too many people I know would sign that agreement without bothering to read past the first paragraph.
Because this is the way Big Brother arrives. It’s not a war with Eurasia that brings him, and when he comes, he’ll have gifts and fun stuff to do. The price? Well, we can discuss that later. It’s so small you probably won’t even notice.