Front Porch Paranoia

Two Christmases ago, we received a Ring doorbell as a gift. If you’re unaware of Ring doorbells, they are video doorbells to be used at the front door of your home. They serve as a sort of security camera for your front porch.

We asked for the Ring doorbell because our front door has no windows and installing a glass door would have cost hundreds of dollars. So a Ring doorbell provides us the ability to see who is at our front door without having to open it.

We didn’t ask for the Ring because we’re afraid of evildoers. We’ve never had any packages stolen. We don’t usually have shady suspects roaming our streets. There are no children ding-dong-ditching us like my friends and I were prone to do when we were kids. We just wanted the convenience of a view out our front door without the high cost of installing a glass door.

Who’s Watching Your Porch?

This might sound a bit weird from someone who works in social media, but I’m a little bit paranoid when it comes to technology. However, working in social media is precisely why, I am paranoid when it comes to technology. I interact with that stuff all day, every day. I’ve seen enough to stay away from a lot of it.

All location services are turned off on all my devices.

When our daughter is born in April, you won’t see any pictures of her on the internet, much to the chagrin of our loved ones.

We don’t have a smart home.

We have no Alexa.

Siri isn’t around.

I’m simply not willing to trade my private conversations for the ability to order paper towels with the sound of my voice.

We have the Ring. We have a smart thermostat. But it all stops there.

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article by John Herrman called, “Who’s Watching Your Front Porch?” It’s a great article about how Ring doorbells and other such devices have exploded in popularity the last couple of years.

He writes:

The growth of easy-to-install home-surveillance equipment, and in particular doorbell cameras, has changed American life in ways obvious and subtle. Marketed in part as a solution to package theft, which has grown alongside e-commerce, especially from Amazon, Ring has found an ally in law enforcement.

More than 500 police departments have partnered with the company, gaining access to a service called Neighbors Portal, which allows users to “ask Ring to request video footage from device owners who are in the area of an active investigation,” according to the company. (This footage is often shared by law enforcement with media organizations for broadcast segments.) Some police departments assist in marketing Ring devices to local citizens, in some cases offering government-subsidized discounts, according to documents obtained by Vice.

We have loved our Ring doorbell, but like the data from a voice-activated device, I am concerned about what happens to the raw footage and data streamed from my front porch.

I would never give law enforcement access to it unless I knew a crime was committed on my front porch, and I certainly don’t want some random person monitoring who comes in and out of my house on any given day.

To be honest, and this is all a bit off the path of the rest of this post, there is a lot that concerns me about Ring doorbells, data privacy, surveillance cinema, and other issues.

I am concerned about the data and privacy issues regarding video doorbells. But even more than that, I am concerned about the sociological issues that arise out of constant front porch surveillance.

Beyond the eery issues around the data captured by these devices is the social media platform that accompanies Ring devices.

The app is called Neighbors, and it’s baked into every Ring app.

It’s a Scary Day in the Neighborhood

Herrman explains Neighbors:

Ring encourages users to join Neighbors and share videos with locals, and provides fodder for other neighborhood social networks, such as Nextdoor, where conversations already skew paranoid. The company also selects videos from its users to be shared on Ring TV, a video portal run by the company, under categories such as “Crime Prevention,” “Suspicious Activity” and “Family & Friends.” The videos are, essentially, free ads: The terrifying ones might convince viewers to buy cameras of their own; funny or sweet ones, at a minimum, condition viewers to understand front-door surveillance as normal, or even fun.

In short, Neighbors is a hyper-local social media platform built around Ring footage and related conversations.

I have worked in social media for almost 10 years, and I have never seen anything like the Neighbors app, well, except Nextdoor. Both apps are filled with paranoid people who seem to be waiting for something suspicious to happen.

We’re more afraid of our neighbors than we have ever been.

The internet and social media have opened our eyes to the evil of the world, and we’re afraid it may be lurking across the street.

Greater Fear Despite Less Crime

Not everyone who has a Ring doorbell is afraid. We didn’t ask for one because we were afraid. But it makes sense that people who have video doorbells may be a bit more suspicious than those who don’t.

Ring doorbells are just one modern example of our increasing fear of the other.

We are more afraid than we have ever been.

Blame it on 9/11. Blame it on the internet. Blame it on whatever you want. But Americans have never been safer, and yet we have never been more afraid.

According to the FBI and Pew, violent crime decreased by over 50% in the last couple of decades:

Yet we are more afraid than we have ever been.

Why?

I think it’s the internet and social media. I think the internet and social media have exposed us to more evil than we’ve ever seen, and we’re afraid it will arrive on our doorsteps.

In 1993, you didn’t know if someone tried to break into your neighbor’s car at midnight last night. But today you can know that when they post their Ring footage to Facebook.

Even though it’s about half as likely for a property crime to happen to you today than it was in 1993, you’re more likely to fear it today. Why? Because you know more than you ever have.

I won’t be giving up my Ring doorbell anytime soon, but I’ll be more careful to avoid the over-informed paranoia of my neighbors and be better about waving at them.