Closer to blanketing suburban neighborhoods with cameras (via Ring doorbells)

Police in hundreds of cities will now have access to Ring doorbell camera footage:

The doorbell-camera company Ring has quietly forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them access to homeowners’ camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls America’s “new neighborhood watch.”

The partnerships let police automatically request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area, helping officers see footage from the company’s millions of Internet-connected cameras installed nationwide, the company said. Officers don’t receive ongoing or live-video access, and homeowners can decline the requests, which are sent via emails that thank them for “making your neighborhood a safer place.”…

To seek out Ring video that has not yet been publicly shared, officers can use a special “Neighbors Portal” map interface to designate a time range and local area, up to half a square mile wide, and get Ring to send an automated email to all users within that range, alongside a case number and message from police.

The user can click to share their Ring videos, review them before sharing or, at the bottom of the email, unsubscribe from future footage-sharing requests. “If you would like to take direct action to make your neighborhood safer, this is a great opportunity,” an email supplied by Ring states.

See earlier posts about suburban police access to individual cameras and my own thinking about covering suburban neighborhoods with private cameras. Quoting from the latter post:

[I]f every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

At the same time, I suspect numerous suburbs would welcome this extra surveillance. Think of wealthier suburban neighborhoods or communities: wouldn’t they typically welcome more information on who is around their homes? This might not even be about crime but really about possible crimes or activity from ne’er-do-wells or even who should be around on streets and sidewalks (often delimited by race and class). Privacy concerns might be mitigated by the suggestion in the article that users still get to choose whether they share footage with police.

Maybe it will all quickly come to this: what about the resident in these communities who refuses to get a Ring doorbell or install security cameras? A small hole in the surveillance network could bring about pressure from neighbors to conform and protect the neighborhood.

Imagining suburbs completely covered by security cameras from single-family homes

After a story from Kane County, Illinois about the extra work for prosecutors in going through video evidence from video doorbells, this got me thinking about surveillance in the suburbs. Imagine in the next few years the typical suburban neighborhood is covered by homeowner surveillance cameras of one kind or another: video doorbells plus consistently-running or motion-detection cameras mounted on the inside and outside of homes.

Traditionally, suburban areas have been more fond of privacy with the emphasis on single-family homes, interactions with neighbors by choice, and a willingness to fight local initiatives if they threaten said property and home. Big cities have long been home to more surveillance ranging from Jane Jacobs’ famous line about “eyes on the street” to the rise of CCTV in London.

What exactly is the cause of all of this? A few factors may be at work:

  1. The ease and low cost of the technology. Why have a regular doorbell when a video doorbell does not cost that much? (And the Internet suggests some people have fears of answering the door.)
  2. Fear of crime, even in relatively low crime suburban areas and after violent crime has dropped in the United States.
  3. A belief that video evidence is much more conclusive evidence compared to other types.
  4. A want to monitor/protect one’s single-family home at all times.

But, if every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

If suburban neighborhoods are increasingly under video surveillance, I wonder if this might change some decisions about where people live. Could this push people to more rural areas or perhaps to communities that more tightly control entries and exits (think gated communities with a real presence all around the perimeter? Or, would the extra surveillance encourage people to live in certain suburbs? Perhaps the decades-old neighborhood watches will be replaced by an unblinking eye on every house.

Will the public be willing to pay more money so police and prosecutors can go through all the new video evidence they have?

The uptick in evidence from devices like video doorbells and police body cameras means more work for public servants:

But State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said prosecutors in some ways are busier than ever with new types of evidence, such as surveillance from Wifi-enabled doorbells, police body cameras and home and business surveillance, compared to several years ago.

“We’re now seeing video come in from Ring doorbells,” McMahon said this week during his monthly media briefing. “We’re now getting actual video, audio and digital information that must be reviewed and analyzed and ultimately stored.”

In recent months, video from doorbell cameras helped police arrest a burglary suspect, and data from a Ring doorbell was used to confirm the identity of a suspect in a Sleepy Hollow home invasion, attempted murder and sex assault. Both court cases are pending.

McMahon said reviewing body camera video from multiple officers responding to a violent crime or even a DUI arrest has increased the workload for prosecutors compared to several years ago.

If there is demonstrable proof that crime rates are going down or more crimes are solved because of this additional evidence, I would guess the public would provide more funds – likely through taxes – to help go through all of the evidence. But, if the evidence does not lead to much or it somehow slips through the cracks or is hacked, it might be very hard to find the public resources.

This also seems ripe for algorithms/machine learning tools to help county and municipal officials scan quickly through all these video feeds. All of this could be very expensive to do in the short-term but could help handle the increasing video streams of the future.

The modern world: the real, significant moments in life are captured by cameras

Looking at a range of events including Ferguson, Missouri, the Ray Rice case, and the release of celebrities’ nude selfies, one writer raises two important questions:

And above all these questions, there’s an ultimate one: What happens when you change a camera into a networked lens?

And: What happens when you add a networked lens to a situation?

Who gains power: the people holding the camera or the people being filmed? (Some argue that cop bodycams would in fact empower the police. After all, who has time to review all that footage?) Whose behavior changes, and how much? What can we expect will happen to the images that result? (Will they disappear into a database forever? If so, what can be done to them there? How will that affect us?)

We don’t know the answer to these twinned questions—but we’re learning a little more every day.

We are sorting through the coming together of two powerful forces: the rise of the visual image (decades in the making) and the Internet enabled and social media fueled interconnections between people. And sometimes, the results are not pretty.

With all of those cameras watching, few people change their public behavior

A Canadian sociologist argues that although more people are being watched in public, through phenomenon like Google Street View and a multitude of security cameras, few people are changing how they act in public settings:

Nathan Young, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, believes few Canadians have altered their public behaviour.

“When we’re out on the street, there’s an understanding we’re in public and there’s a risk of being seen or talked to,” says Young. “What’s different now is if we go outside to change a tire in our underwear, it can be exposed worldwide.”…

Voyeurism has always been a part of human motivation, says Young, an authority on privacy issues.

But ogling the Google images also tells us something about our sense of fun, he explains, pointing out some of the images are theatrics or misunderstandings of a moment.

“Clearly, there are people out there that want to play (with the technology),” he reasons. “Not for politics or protest. Just a personal imprint.”

Young says there’s no evidence people are more aware or cautious as they head out their doors.

At this point, if you are acting “normally” in public, you don’t have much reason to worry that some camera out there might see what you are doing. At the same time, there seems to be a decent number of people who are worried that these cameras and technologies could end up being used against them.

It is interesting to note how people do act in public and to think whether this differs from how they act when they are alone.