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.