While we’ve touched on this subject before, I’ve been increasingly interested in the quickly spreading phenomenon of what have come to be known as doorbell cameras. There are quite a few of them out there to choose from these days, with two of the most popular being Amazon’s Ring system and Google’s Nest. They’ve been growing in popularity, particularly in suburban neighborhoods. This has been abetted by hundreds of local police departments going so far as to subsidize or even give away Ring systems to homeowners in an attempt to gain access to more video surveillance footage when investigating crimes.
This partnership with law enforcement feeds into Ring’s social networking app called Neighborhood, where members of the community can share footage and reports of crime or suspicious activity. The police can request the footage from willing participants without a warrant because the sharing of the videos is not mandatory. Plenty of people are still sharing, however. This has led to the usual complaints about privacy concerns, misidentification, and even racism, as you might expect.
Over at Wired, Louise Matsakis has a lengthy analysis of how these camera systems are changing our culture. She does a good job offering data on both sides of the debate, both in terms of effects on crime rates and the aforementioned privacy concerns. On the latter point, she brings up some peculiar complaints, specifically in terms of questions as to whether this filming activity is actually doing anyone any good.
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.
This “passivity” argument seems to me to be one of the most specious of them all. Take the examples that the author provides in that excerpt. A film clip of a little girl walking a dog at four in the morning isn’t all that interesting in and of itself. But if she was in trouble and the owners couldn’t help her because they were sleeping, that doesn’t invalidate the system. Let’s say in a worst-case scenario that the girl went missing. Police could still use the video and its timestamp to at least confirm someplace she was before disappearing and establish a timeline of events to help solve the mystery.
As for the homeowners who watched from afar as a tornado approached and then destroyed their house, what could they (or anyone) have done about it had they been there? We don’t have a way to stop or deflect tornados. But if they had been home and awake, perhaps they’d have seen the twister approaching a few minutes earlier and had time to flee to safety.
The article also goes into the question of whether or not you’re allowed to film things that aren’t taking place on your own property. That’s not even an issue anywhere in the country as far as I know. Anyone can take pictures or video of things going on out in public spaces, whether with their phone or an installed surveillance system. The only restrictions come into play if the owner of the video attempts to use someone else’s image for profit without their permission. Simply having the video, or even sharing it on social media or with the police is not going to land you in court to the best of my knowledge.
Also, these systems have settings where you can limit the range of the motion detectors and the angle of the lens. So if you really don’t want to film beyond the edge of your property you don’t have to.
This technology is not only helping police solve crimes more quickly, but it arguably reduces overall crime if potential porch pirates and car thieves become aware that a given neighborhood is constantly being filmed. How anyone sees this as a bad thing remains a mystery to me.