I Turned My Home Into a Fortress of Surveillance

The universe doesn’t care about you.

Erik Carter / The Atlantic

In America, a home is a castle, for better and worse. Thanks to John Locke’s labor theory of property, the American Dream, mortgage-interest deductions, suburbanization, and all the rest, this castle doctrine became a life philosophy for the middle class: Your house is an extension of yourself. Protecting your property—and the people and things that reside inside—is your duty, and your right.

Home-security systems of all kinds, from guard dogs to alarms, have scratched this itch for decades. More recently, smart sensors, cameras, and other devices have taken up the task. With an internet-connected camera, you can check on the home front from work or school or Target.

There are downsides. Internet-connected smart cameras, microphones, thermostats, and other sensors send reams of data back to the big tech companies that operate their services. Some of those services use those data in ways, such as giving the information to police forces, the device’s owner might not anticipate. Smart cameras can magnify racism and spur vigilantism.

As a technology scholar and critic, I am aware of all these drawbacks. I’ve encountered them as a homeowner too. I’ve fought with neighbors on Nextdoor about their unfounded paranoia—and caught myself inadvertently profiling people who showed up on the camera I installed at my front door.

This was before I overhauled my setup. Previously, I’d had my camera notify me only when it “saw something.” (You know, because you’re supposed to say something.) I suspected that this setup—the basic setting for my system—was contributing to the bad vibes. If the camera shares only events deemed to be concerning—typically any motion whatsoever—then every occurrence at the door becomes more easily seen as a potential threat, even if it’s just leaves rustling in the wind or a stray dog sniffing the stoop. What if the problem with home surveillance isn’t the surveillance itself, but how selective today’s automated systems tend to be?

When I moved into a new house last year, I decided to test this hypothesis. I was already pulling lots of networking cable through the walls for jacks and Wi-Fi access points, so I took the opportunity to run ethernet absolutely everywhere. Then I attached an absurd number of cameras to that cabling—16, last I counted—transforming my house into a surveillance fortress. (Knowing the privacy and data-policing issues that arise when supplying video to tech companies via the cloud, I store all the footage locally on a giant hard-disk array in my basement; I’m the only person who can access it.)

Here’s what I have learned from a year of extreme, 24/7 home monitoring: Nothing happens.

Nothing.

My family comes and goes; the mail gets delivered. Cars approach and retreat. People walk dogs. The wind blows yard accessories from where they were to where they now lie. The sun creeps up the fence and the brick before withdrawing again later. Rain collects in the hollows when it rains. In the evening, the lights illuminate. Birds eat the grass seed I just spread. My home might be my castle, but the universe doesn’t care.

So, yes: A holistic view of the home front did bring clarity. When you can view the property from almost every angle, no mystery remains hidden in the shadows. No shadows remain, even. Just a nearly complete picture of all the action everywhere on the property. Which is to say: none.

I have enough disk space to store more than a month’s worth of footage before the server starts overwriting it. Sometimes I go back and scrub through my historical surveillance. In those cases, I watch nothing happen over and over again. Day turns to night turns to day again. The same vehicles pass by, leaving and returning. The garage garages the cars within. The same branches dance in the same winds, casting the same shadows across the same empty lawns and pavements.

After months of this, I concluded that the anxiety associated with home-as-castle is likely misplaced, amplified by singular events. Home-surveillance adoption for many people goes like this: A package gets stolen (or perhaps never delivered) and inspires the installation of a single doorbell camera. Then, that camera sends incomplete information—a suspect on the premises might just be a solicitor, a delivery person, a Boy Scout, or a van driving by. The worry begets more worry, all because the camera offered only a sliver of a view of the whole—one meant to spin doubt into tizzy. It’s better to see nothing if you can’t see everything.

Living in a surveillance fortress has offered functional benefits, on occasion. Sometimes sight proves useful, but not by instilling comfort—more by solving banal mysteries. When concern arose on the block that a repair to a water main might have cut power to a streetlight, I was able to look back a couple of weeks and confirm that, no, the light was out before the dig began. After months of trying to deduce the source of a groundwater leak into the garage, I realized I could just throw a camera in there and wait for it to rain. Once it did, the location of the incursion in the concrete was easy to spot, and I sealed it. Incensed by a suspicion that a dumpster in the alley was never being emptied, I was able to confirm that, no, absolutely it was—my neighbors and I just generate a lot of waste, I guess.

But mostly, the benefits of self-surveillance are aesthetic. The camera-controller software records what it construes as motion, leaving me a folder of supposed events in my smartphone app. The more sophisticated cameras have AI now, promising to detect only people or vehicles. This technical advance is a mistake. For one thing, it renews the problem of selective surveillance. For another: What a waste it would be to only be concerned with humans and their machines of conveyance.

Instead, I have developed a deep, if distant, relationship with the neighborhood fauna: feral cats, mostly, lots of them, who meander the same paths most nights—up the driveway or across the deck. One, a black cat, traverses the alley from west to east only—never the other way. Night possums lurk, scampering from the neighbor’s yard to behind my boxwoods. Hello, possums. The squirrels leap from fence to tree, but especially from dumpster to fence. They are unhinged; I’ve seen one carrying an entire pizza. I have a collection of action shots of their deeds, a Jackass for arboreal rodents.

Surveillance is normally understood as monitoring, and that’s where the trouble starts. But another use is possible too: just looking. Looking can devolve into a dangerous exercise of asymmetrical power, but it can also produce communion. Why else would people watch birds, or the sea, or children at play? Not because something happens, although that’s always possible. Rather, just to see how few deeds of note transpire. The days and seasons pass, bikes traverse blacktop, Amazon Prime tosses another boxed bauble to the curb. Nothing happens. At its worst, home surveillance makes you the main character of life’s story—poised for strife, as any good protagonist is. But used differently, it can also produce the opposite conclusion: The world doesn’t care about you at all.

Some mornings, when I wake up, I pick up the smartphone and open the camera app instead of email or Twitter. I look out onto the street or the yard, via all the little eyes. I’m not looking for anything; I’m just looking—the digital-life equivalent of brushing the curtain aside to see another day on Earth. There it is, and here I am within it.