The morning after my dad died I went online and ordered my mum an Amazon Ring doorbell camera. In the haze that follows loss it seemed a sensible idea. I thought it was a practical way to keep her safe.
Looking back, this decision actually made very little sense. My mother lives on a quiet street in a small town on the edge of the New Forest. The local newspaper prints photographs of wild ponies and stories about footpath closures. My parents did buy a motion-activated camera once, but only because they wanted to watch hedgehogs walking through the garden.
Paranoia made me want to fit a WiFi-enabled camera to her front door. It seems to be contagious. This year, global sales of smart home security technology are forecast to exceed $1bn, according to Strategy Analytics. Self-appointed experts in modern manners have had to come out with dystopian etiquette rules around pointing cameras towards a neighbour’s home. Yet there is no data proving that these devices deter crime. What surveillance tech has created is a hazier boundary around personal data. Those of us who buy a Ring doorbell are volunteering to help build a global map of recordings. We may also be unwittingly agreeing to hand over more private information than we realise.
In the US, Ring has signed partnerships with hundreds of police forces, offering them access to video footage. Politico reports that a US judge recently gave police the ability to watch a Ring customer’s camera footage, including videos taken inside his home, because they were investigating his neighbour. In the UK, the Met says that it has worked “informally” with Ring.
Ring says its products are designed for safety not surveillance. But privacy is a high price to pay if security tech is not making the world any safer. So is peace of mind. What I should have remembered before buying the camera is how unnerving surveillance tech can be and how quickly it can amplify a sense of insecurity.
A few months earlier, I had downloaded a real-time crime-tracking app called Citizen. The company that created it calls it a personal safety network. It is sort of like Twitter if Twitter was hyper-local and fixated only on bad news. Users get safety alerts of incidents in their location and can send in reports of things they witness.
Within seconds I could see reports of a man with a knife a few streets away. In recent days there had also been a car crash, a fire and a fight. The real view outside my window of a quiet, sunny San Francisco street melted away. In its place was a digital list of potential threats. Using Citizen made San Francisco feel more sinister. It’s true that low level crime is common across the city. Cars are broken into and tires are slashed so often that most people I know don’t bother to buy one unless they can park it inside a garage. But the chances of being the victim of violent crime are lower than in many other large US cities. Crime also tends to be concentrated in particular neighbourhoods, such as the Tenderloin.
Once you gather up every reported incident of violence in one place, however, the threat seems far greater. A record of up to date criminal activity might be useful if you are new to an area. Businesses considering locations and homeowners interested in moving might use it to get certain information. But it can also facilitate panic and unjustified accusations.
The FT reported last month that one of Citizen’s earliest investors, Sequoia Capital, had resigned from the board and would not take part in a so-called “cram down” fundraising round. This follows an incident in which Citizen offered a bounty for information about a man its chief executive wrongly suspected of starting a wildfire.
Citizen has tried to add some feel-good tools. It lets users know when missing children have been found, for example. But this is not much of a money-spinner. Protection is where the revenue lies.
Spend half an hour on the app looking at reports of knife-wielding locals and you too may want to start paying for private security. Like Ring, Citizen has a monthly subscription plan. For $19.99 a month you can be tracked by agents whenever you feel unsafe. Of course, if you need help there is not much the agents can do other than call 911. Which you could just do yourself.
The fervour with which this option was promoted was the excuse I needed to delete the app. It felt like a constant anxiety prompt. Instead of safety, it prompted private security.
Ring also offers a monthly plan that lets you watch recordings taken on your door. For now, the Ring doorbell has also been relegated, tucked away into a drawer. If it’s ever installed I hope it’s just for spotting wildlife.