Suspicion is currency. Selling consumers a 24/7 surveillance apparatus of their own making shrinks police oversight, expands the network of cameras blanketing American cities, and sends money to Amazon. That’s the trick of high-tech home surveillance: For users, it feels empowering. But it also creates a regulatory gray zone: When private citizens own the cameras, their footage isn’t subject to the same rules as police surveillance.
Read: The police officer “nextdoor”
“People only think one step ahead of themselves,” says Brian Hofer, the chair of the City of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, which advises the city on surveillance and privacy. “They aren’t thinking down the line. Securing your home is defensive. [Installing] cameras pointing at your neighbors’ houses and license-plate readers tracking their vehicles is a whole different ball game.”
Different for two reasons. First, Ring is part of a surveillance ecosystem far more sophisticated than a single officer reviewing footage. According to CNET, police in Indiana matched Ring footage of nearby cars against a license-plate-reader system to track drivers. According to a BuzzFeed report, Amazon included Ring footage in Facebook ads for the product, potentially showing Facebook’s users anyone caught on the footage—without their consent, and regardless of whether they were convicted of or charged with a crime.
And second, private behavior on apps such as Nextdoor and Facebook isn’t subject to government oversight. As part of a national heel turn on invasive tech, Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle have passed laws targeted at advanced police technology, such as license-plate readers, body cameras, and facial-recognition software. But the Ring program evades even the vanguard of anti-surveillance regulation.
Just as homeowners have every right to set up cameras on their own home, they have every right to share and comment on footage online and even to privately use surveillance technology such as license-plate readers.
“People have tried to outlaw [private-party] license-plate readers, and they’ve lost every time because it’s actually a First Amendment activity,” Hofer says. “I have the right to go out and collect info and repackage it if I want, and sell it to customers if I want. On the other hand, when you see clearly in front of your face the horror stories coming out of Nextdoor, it’s clear there has to be some sort of oversight. I don’t know what that silver bullet is.”
“My personal preference is to win a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign rather than try to mandate or restrict private behavior through legislation,” Hofer continues. “We start getting into some tricky constitutional areas if we try to regulate private behavior.”
Read: The convenience-surveillance tradeoff
There’s a tension inherent to any fight about Ring, or products like it: How can you regulate police use of camera footage without controlling the private citizens who generate that footage? Every digital interaction, from liking a photo to sending an email to filing taxes online, comes with a privacy concern. Privacy advocates want police oversight, not a nanny state where people are chastised for and restricted from everything they may want to do with their own devices in their own home. But a fully unrestricted digital neighborhood watch may actually end up making companies more powerful.