A Ring of Paranoia
We installed a Ring doorbell camera a few months ago. I personally have long resisted the idea of installing a camera like this because I have always considered this to be an invasion of privacy. But after more than a year of logical and reasonable domestic debate, we decided we would install one. There are very specific reasons why we decided to install a Ring doorbell camera, which I won’t get into in this post.
The Rise of Surveillance Culture
The convenience of Ring cameras allows homeowners to monitor their properties remotely, which can create a sense of constant vigilance. While this can offer peace of mind, it can also cultivate an obsession with monitoring every little detail of one’s environment. As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and this responsibility can sometimes morph into an obsession with monitoring every movement around one’s home.
One downside of constant surveillance is the prevalence of false alarms. A passing car, a neighbor’s pet, or even a falling leaf can trigger alerts, leading to unnecessary anxiety and heightened paranoia.
Soon after we installed the camera (and the app on our phones), we too were quite amused by these camera alerts, but it took us only a few weeks to get used to them, calibrate the camera for false alerts, and then eventually be comfortable enough with the alerts we get. Like most Ring users, we too got sucked into the Ring world quite inadvertently. So, this post is a result of having had an immersive experience with the device, and in particular, with Ring Neighbors, which they sell as a great feature to keep you and your neighborhood safe. Because Amazon Ring and similar service providers claim that this feature helps you monitor crime reports in your area — and this will help you stay safe.
Needless to say, the Amazon Ring video doorbell (and similar devices) has become increasingly popular in many neighborhoods. After all, everyone wants to be safe, right?
But here’s the catch. Ring Neighbors and similar services rely heavily on self-reporting. Basically, most of the crime data in Ring Neighbors is crowd-sourced without any moderation.
The Fear of the Unknown
Fear of Crime
In my six months of using this feature, I can confirm that most of the emergency neighborhood alerts are absolute nonsense. Ranging from “Did anyone lose power?” to “What was that sound?” to “Did anyone hear a helicopter flying?”, these kinds of alerts are annoying to say the least. What I have found useful though (and perhaps the only thing so far) are the lost-and-found cats and dogs alerts.
Then there are alerts like “Do you recognize this person? She just rang my doorbell.”
This is where the benefits of this feature begin to enter a gray area.
They claim that Ring and similar systems promote a sense of awareness about potential criminal activity in the neighborhood. While this can be a valuable tool in deterring crime, it can also lead to the exaggeration of minor incidents and an overall sense of insecurity. It is also already becoming clear that black and brown people are likely to be overrepresented in crime reported through these apps. Of course, this depends on the neighborhood you live in. But there is already data to prove that in many neighborhoods this is the case.
The point is Amazon’s Ring may not be turning everyone into a cop by design but devices ands services like these may be making you assume the worst of your neighbors. Ring Neighbors, with a broader business objective of selling devices and features using our fear as a marketing bait, is actually built on a fundamental design that involves pitting neighbors one against another — albeit unintentionally.
The Impact of Fear and Stereotypes on Communities and Development (aka) The Echo Chamber Effect
Neighborhood Alert can inadvertently foster confirmation bias. When people receive alerts about suspicious activity, it can reinforce preconceived notions about the safety of their neighborhood. Over time, this can lead to a distorted view of the actual level of security and increase feelings of paranoia.
The rapid spread of information through social networks can turn small incidents into major neighborhood concerns. Without proper context or verification, these rumors can stoke fear and paranoia, even when there is no real cause for alarm. Like I quoted above “a sound someone heard” could turn into a rumor of a multiple shooting incident, where in reality, perhaps an Indian was setting some fireworks to celebrate Deepavali/Diwali.
When a significant number of community members believe that crime rates are rising and that strangers, particularly those with darker skin, pose a threat, the consequences can be far-reaching. The fear instilled in individuals may lead them to limit their outdoor activities, avoid public transportation, and prefer driving with familiar companions. Moreover, the arrival of people from different racial backgrounds or lower economic statuses may be met with less enthusiasm.
But, does this fear of crime also contribute to a siege mentality that opposes any new developments in the neighborhood? Could it be the reason why even the idea of accessory apartments or small apartments in some areas is met with resistance? While I only have anecdotal evidence, I find it to be a plausible hypothesis.
Also anecdotal is how neighborhoods (usually affluent) filled with several opponents, citing “safety” as a key reason for wanting to protect single-family homes around them. It seems that when people talk about maintaining the “neighborhood character,” crime concerns often come into play. And what these “crimes” and how “fear” plays a huge role in labeling some actions as “crimes” is becoming increasingly subjective, especially in this age of surveillance and self-reporting.
Additionally, it is plausible that when you live in a neighborhood with the paranoia of potential harm being caused to your community by outsiders, then it may deter support for improved infrastructure such as sidewalks and bus routes. After all, these enhancements increase accessibility for non-residents, making it easier for them to find their way into your home. Again, that’s what paranoia can do.
In addition, the extensive network of cameras connected through Neighborhood Alert raises privacy concerns. People may fear that their every move, even within the confines of their own homes, is being observed and reported to the community. This fear of being constantly watched can contribute to a pervasive sense of paranoia.
Listen, I don’t hold the residents near me responsible for being interested in platforms like Ring, Nextdoor, and Ring Neighbors. It is only natural to want to stay informed about local happenings. And if you have old parents living alone in their homes, as children, you may want to equip their homes with the latest security features possible. However, it is crucial for us to know that these online apps and platforms are waging their own propaganda wars by selling fear and paranoia. We must remain savvy and not fall into the trap of accepting their rhetoric as valid. It’s easier said than done.
The Human Element
While security cameras can enhance security, they should complement, not replace, human interaction in communities. Over-reliance on technology to address security concerns can diminish the sense of trust and cooperation among neighbors. But to dream that there would be a change in the way how humans interact in their communities is far-fetched.
So, do we push for regulations against these online platforms with crowd-sourced crime activities to be become moderated by law enforcement officials? Or moderated by some other means?
For now though, this question continues to linger in my mind..
How do we strike a balance between the benefits of this technology and the paranoia caused by fear being sold to us by these technology companies?