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What better way to celebrate Halloween than spending a night watching your Ring doorbell? The ghoulishly dressed neighbourhood kids can lean into your fish-eye lens. You record them through the solitary eye on your door and talk back to them in a disembodied voice, even if you aren’t home. The horror show of modern life is captured on the porch: everyone gets candy or footage for TikTok, and big tech gets its big data.
Products such as Ring and Blink — both owned by Amazon — Google Nest, Wyze and other smart doorbells are, rightly, the target for questions about our surveillance culture. Their pitch was to make us more secure through the ability to detect ne’er-do-wells taking an interest in one’s property through live cameras and talk-back systems direct to your phone. Whole TikTok channels are now devoted to stoking fears about strange characters who turn up on the doorstep at 4am.
Ring has just released its seasonal Halloween greetings. One of the preset recordings consists of a spooky voice intoning: “Fire burn, cauldron bubble, leave your message at the double.”
But these little devices should disturb you even more for how they alter the normal interactions of life. It is difficult to forget the trend for Ring doorbell users to leave notes asking for their delivery driver to dance when they leave a package. Some threw some shapes and became viral sensations on TikTok. But even bears aren’t asked to dance for entertainment any more.
There are more subtle ways that smart doorbell systems intrude upon our daily activities, and not just through the interactions of the home-dweller and the outsider. Reddit has a number of posts from people concerned about observation within their own homes. Not all are with guilty intent.
One woman’s ex-husband still has access to the Ring footage. She cannot work out how to lock him out of access but keep the cameras. A boyfriend wants to know how to disarm the system when his girlfriend is away. Someone hears their mother-in-law bad-mouthing the grandchildren through the remote audio. Will the nanny get antsy if you put up security cameras in the house?
You can be anxious as hell about big tech having access to your data. But actually, it is your cohabitees, your family, roommates and parents who are the all-seeing eye. The cameras, some of which don’t require wiring in at all, can be placed all around the house and the garden to provide a continuous injection on to your phone of things that can make you anxious. Buy a Ring doorbell: make yourself insecure.
It turns out that we did not need the central watchtower of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon to ensure we are all doing exactly as we should under the threat of the all-seeing authority. We can do it with networked cameras, becoming the jailers of our own family and friends. Things that may never have mattered now become digitised for examination; the people we trust the most suddenly become the subjects of our mistrust.
This eye has double backed upon itself. When Ring started in 2014, then only with a talk-back feature and motion detection, it described itself as a “pre-crime” system. It would assist law enforcement. Around 2,000 localities in the US have police partnered with Ring and have access to the footage, in most cases with a warrant or consent.
However, the camera also plays back on them. A leaked FBI report showed officers were worried about themselves being compromised by being surveilled during covert activities. (In one instance, in New Orleans, someone being watched by the bureau was able to watch back and report on their activities.) They are also the subject of some humiliating videos on TikTok when they fail to break down doors.
A smart doorbell can see the present (on more advanced Ring systems it can now even capture video before motion has even been detected through its pre-roll function) and it can store data of the past. But it can’t see into the future. Because what smart-doorbell user would want to show what we will probably become — hooked on our phones, obsessed by every fluttering and half-lit image on our driveway. There would rarely be a moment’s peace.
This watching and rewatching of our real lives is corrosive in itself. One user on Reddit reports her dog jumps at the ding-dang-dong of a Ring bell, not just when someone is at her door, but at her neighbours, who also have them installed. And when the advert plays on the radio, on YouTube, the news. The poor nerve-wracked dog is a metaphor for us all.
Alternatively, one could just demarcate a life into real time and just deal with the problems as they arise. Ghouls become visible on our streets but once a year. The other 364 are the perfect opportunity to live in blithe ignorance.
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