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.

Traitor, Patriot, or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯: Millennials on Edward Snowden

In June of 2013, Edward Snowden, a security consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton and the National Security Agency (NSA), leaked disturbing, classified United States surveillance programs. Here’s an interview done with Snowden in Hong Kong shortly after his flight from his home in Hawaii:

Immediately following the leak, there were…mixed reviews about the work of Snowden.

Friend or Foe?

Douglas Rushkoff wrote for CNN in a article called “Edward Snowden Is a Hero”:

Snowden is a hero because he realized that our very humanity was being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe. Unlike those around him, who were too absorbed in their task to reflect on their actions and pause in their pursuit of digital omniscience, Snowden allowed himself to be “disturbed” by what he was doing.

More in the midst of technology than most of us will ever be, Snowden disengaged for long enough to be human and to consider the impact of what he was helping build. He pressed pause.

Thank heavens our intelligence agencies are staffed by people like Snowden, not robots. People can still think.

Jeffrey Toobin wrote a response for the New Yorker titled, “Edward Snowden Is No Hero”:

What, one wonders, did Snowden think the N.S.A. did? Any marginally attentive citizen, much less N.S.A. employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the N.S.A. operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn’t been paying very close attention. In any event, Snowden decided that he does not “want to live in a society” that intercepts private communications. His latter-day conversion is dubious.

And what of his decision to leak the documents? Doing so was, as he more or less acknowledges, a crime. Any government employee or contractor is warned repeatedly that the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a crime. But Snowden, apparently, was answering to a higher calling. “When you see everything you realize that some of these things are abusive,” he said. “The awareness of wrongdoing builds up. There was not one morning when I woke up. It was a natural process.” These were legally authorized programs; in the case of Verizon Business’s phone records, Snowden certainly knew this, because he leaked the very court order that approved the continuation of the project. So he wasn’t blowing the whistle on anything illegal; he was exposing something that failed to meet his own standards of propriety. The question, of course, is whether the government can function when all of its employees (and contractors) can take it upon themselves to sabotage the programs they don’t like. That’s what Snowden has done.

Clearly, Snowden has a polarizing effect. If you know who he is, and you may not, you tend to either think he is a traitor or a patriot.

Some think Ed Snowden is a traitor because he revealed how the United States spies on its enemies, giving us our edge in the intelligence community and a potential leg-up if any major conflict were to break out.

Others think Ed Snowden is a patriot because he revealed how the United States spies on its own people, calling into question the right to privacy of the typical American citizen.

I think Snowden is a patriot, but that’s just where I’m at. I think any time someone can uncover government programs that have a potentially harmful effect on the American people, it’s a good thing.

What is the potential harmful effect of United States surveillance programs monitoring its own people? Ultimately, it’s a lack of freedom and privacy.

The question I want to ask as it pertains to this blog is:

What Do Millennials Think?

I’m a Millennial, and I tend to think Snowden is a patriot for doing what he did, and most of my friends who are Millennials appear to feel the same way.

What’s nice about this issue, is that it is one issue dealing with the government that doesn’t seem to be easily divisible down party lines. I have seen both Democrats and Republicans arguing amongst themselves and even joining together depending on how they view Snowden’s work.

I love it when matters of government aren’t cookie-cutter down the party aisles. Makes things more interesting and actually makes it seem like people are thinking for themselves.

This week, the Harvard University Institute of Politics released data from a survey it conducted among Millennials, asking them what they think of Snowden and what they would do in his situation.

snowdenmillennials

The question depicted in the pie chart on the left side is perhaps the most fascinating bit of information here.

When asked the question, “Based on what you know at this time, which of the following words best describes your view of Edward Snowden?” Millennials are as split as they could possibly be—22% of Millennials think he is a Patriot, 22% of Millennials think he is a Traitor, and 52% of Millennials are like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Another interesting find in this study is depicted at the bottom of the graph below. Harvard asks Millennials if they were in a position similar to Snowden, would they release what he did? Half of Millennials wouldn’t know what they would do, 31% say they wouldn’t do it, and 15% say they would. This, however, shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as if Millennials approve or disapprove of Snowden’s leaks. Rather, it should probably be seen as whether or not Millennials have the guts to do what he did.

For instance, I think he’s a patriot, but I probably wouldn’t leak stuff like he did for no other reason than I would have been a chicken.

Edward Snowden’s Leak Supports Millennials’ Lack of Trust

The primary reason I was surprised more Millennials don’t think of Snowden as a patriot is because his revelation of the government spying on its own people fits nicely into the Millennial generality that they do not trust institutions.

Many Millennials do not trust the United States government already, and I figured Snowden’s work would be received with more praise than it appears it has been.

If you want to learn more about government surveillance, watch this video from John Oliver, which includes a funny (and very informative) interview with Edward Snowden:

Also, Snowden joined Twitter this week. He followed the NSA on Twitter, which is pretty hilarious, and learned a valuable lesson pretty quickly:

He thinks social media will be a perfect platform for releasing more secrets (he’s right):

And he’s already started taunting the government: