Install a video doorbell to “join the neighborhood” in fear

A recent ad from Ring shows the kind acts neighbors can perform for each other and visitors. The moments range from dropping off misdelivered mail to warning about a fire to capturing footage of someone shoveling a front sidewalk to a resident leaving out snacks for delivery drivers. All of this looks good…And yet: do people install video doorbells because they want to capture good deeds? Or, are they more likely motivated by fear and safety concerns?

I have written about the new possibilities for suburban neighborhoods: homeowners with video doorbells can work as an ever watching surveillance force. And the footage can be shared with police! And no one has to answer the door! But, all of these share motivations: this is about fear, not about neighborliness. Even looking out for others in the neighborhood via the camera is about fighting against crime, disorder, and threats.

On the whole, I would guess video cameras will not increase the number of good needs and neighborliness. American communities need more face-to-face interaction, not monitoring via cameras or online discussions through platforms like NextDoor or messages through yard signs. The commercial is a worthy attempt by Ring to bring a positive message regarding the doorbell camera but hides more of what is really going on.

 

Will more cameras tracking public activity push Americans to be even more private?

More communities are putting together networks of cameras that show what is happening in public spaces. Some of this comes at the municipal level, often in the name of preventing or solving crimes, and is increasing happening at the private level as homeowners add cameras to monitor around their home.

If people are concerned about the rise of cameras and analysis (particularly through algorithms and predictive software), will this change their behavior? The United States already has a tendency in recent decades toward private spaces. Scholars and commentators lament the decline of public spaces, the shift toward privatized settings between work and home (think Starbucks or shopping malls), and the primacy of single-family homes. Imagine a society where people are fearful of cameras and decide to curtail their public activity. A variety of technologies could help them limit the time they spend outside their residences: think working from home, grocery and food delivery, and the delivery of all sorts of goods and services to an address.

If this comes to pass, the public realm might be even more impoverished. Will the often think social life and outside activity of suburban neighborhoods continue to dry up? Where will people of different backgrounds and interests interact? What will happen to the thrill of being around crowds and dynamic activity? Would this simply lead to more suspicion and calls for even more cameras and surveillance to figure out who would be so bold to go out (or to turn the surveillance into more private spaces)?

This all may sound pretty dystopian. When I walk down the street in my neighborhood or my community (regular activities for me), I rarely think about the cameras that might be watching. I try to be observant and I do not notice too many surveillance devices. My neighbors may indeed be watching (or able to watch) but it does not feel like a threat. But, sometime soon, just the threat of being watched, let alone different actors using the video and data, may influence the feeling of community.

(Of course, it may not be the cameras that truly could limit public life. Perhaps the true threat comes from the smartphones we all carry and that track us.)

Finding data by finding and/or guessing URLs

A California high school student is posting new data from 2020 presidential polls before news organizations because he found patterns in their URLs:

How does Rawal do it? He correctly figures out the URL — the uniform resource locator, or full web address — that a graphic depicting the poll’s results appears at before their official release.

“URL manipulation is what I do,” he said, “and I’ve been able to get really good at it because, with websites like CNN and Fox, all the file names follow a pattern.”

He added, “I’m not going to go into more detail on that.”

He said he had just spoken with The Register’s news director, who expressed interest in his helping the newspaper “keep it under tighter wraps.” He is considering it.

This makes sense on both ends: media organizations need a way to organize their files and sites and someone who looks at the URLs over time could figure out the pattern. Now to see how media organizations respond as to not let their stories out before they report them.

I imagine there is a broader application for this. Do many organizations have websites or data available that is not linked to or a link is not easily found? I could imagine how such hidden/unlinked data could be used for nefarious or less ethical purposes (imagine scooping news releases about soon-to-be released economic figures in order to buy or sell stocks) as well as data collection.

Open office arrangements may not work for getting work done

An evaluation of the implosion of The We Company highlights the importance of physical space for accomplishing tasks in the workplace:

Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees. But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.

The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the last decade, American offices got more and more stuffed. On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8 percent since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space

But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work…

The scourge of open offices is not a new subject for ranting. Open offices were sold to workers as a boon to collaboration — liberated from barriers, stuffed in like sardines, people would chat more and, supposedly, come up with lots of brilliant new ideas. Yet study after study has shown open offices to foster seclusion more than innovation; in order to combat noise, the loss of privacy and the sense of being watched, people in an open office put on headphones, talk less, and feel terrible.

This moment might just a tipping point in the evolution of office space. Cubed suggests office layouts do change over time. What seems to be next is a mixing of older models and the open model: different spaces that range from very private (think soundproof booths or offices away from activity, sound, and eyes) to very open (think couches and play areas for activity). How exactly the imperative to save money or be efficient remains to be seen.

Hinted at in this opinion piece is another interesting idea: could truly private spaces only be available to certain classes of workers or certain people? The office has long been symbol of more power and/or responsibility. Imagine a workforce or a public where the majority of people operate in common spaces that are semi-private, with privacy usually obtained though the actions of individuals (headphones, focus on screens, etc.). In contrast, those with power and resources have access to distraction-free spaces.

Another big issue could be this: how much work these days is truly distraction-free and are we moving toward less deep work? Again, this might different by field or role. But, the rise of smartphones and the Internet means people are highly distractable from work, even in very private settings. American adults on average are consuming 11 hours of media a day, some of this which must happen at work for many.

Cooking meat in a suburban backyard and resolving suburban conflicts

A recent controversy in an Australian suburb highlights two key issues in suburbia: (1) what exactly can you do in a suburban backyard and (2) how do suburbanites resolve conflict? To the details:

The Perth woman said she couldn’t enjoy her backyard in the suburb of Girrawheen, claiming her neighbours deliberately allow their barbecue meat and fish smells to waft into her yard…

After her claims were rejected by a tribunal earlier this year on lack of evidence, she applied to the Supreme Court of Western Australia for right of appeal. It was also turned down in July…

And it’s not just the smell of meat and fish that has made her furious — it’s the smell of cigarettes and the sound of children playing with basketballs…

Mr Vu said he just wanted to “keep the peace” and had removed the barbecue out of his yard and also banned his children from playing basketball…

Mr Hammond said the first step in any dispute with your neighbours was to try and resolve the matter face-to-face.

Two issues are present:

  1. Suburbanites tend to assume that backyards are for private activities. The front yard is open to the public and can be seen from the street and the sidewalk. The backyard is more hidden, particularly if the yard is fenced or cut out from view in other ways (such as through hedges and trees). But, are there limits to what can be done in backyards? What is considered infringing on others? Overly loud dogs? Trees that cross property lines? Activities found undesirable by neighbors (such as grilling and playing basketball)? Where property rights end and neighborhood disturbances and nuisances begin could be a fine line (and there are surely some local regulations to help figure this out).
  2. Suburbanites are often not great at resolving conflict. Baumgarner argued suburban community is built around avoiding open conflict and using third party actors if necessary. It is not clear from the article above how much face-to-face interaction happened between neighbors but appealing to the courts seems likely to end badly for neighborly relations: no matter who wins, the fact that this led to media coverage and court cases likely makes it more difficult to have positive relationships.

On one hand, this is a small-scale conflict. On the other hand, multiply such conflicts by just a few and the suburbs look like a place where neighbors want to be protected from each other – wait, privacy and exclusion was indeed behind the creation of suburbs

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.