False Alarm

Digital alarm systems increase homeowners’ sense of security by fomenting fear

My first encounter with Ring, Amazon’s “smart doorbell,” was while visiting family and friends in New Jersey during the holidays. I’d been living in Santa Cruz, California, for the past two years, a city deeply affected by wealth inequality and a severe housing crisis — a result, among other things, of Silicon Valley overflow and ensuing gentrification — which has worsened a preexisting homelessness problem.

Spending the night at a friend’s house in Watchung, an affluent suburb, they were eager to show me Ring, the sophisticated camera-security system set up around the perimeter of their property and inside their home. Ring is just one product in a crop of new “smart home” devices that detect motion within the designated space, trigger video and audio recordings, and alert the owner directly to their phone. What makes Ring unique against its competitors like Nest Hello (Google) and Netatmo (compatible with Apple HomeKit), is the companion app, Neighbors, where Ring users post their recordings. Functioning like a social media app with the familiar interface of the newsfeed, Neighbors aggregates content within a designated proximity from the home (the default radius is three miles), and offers a live feed with real crime updates.

Home security technologies play on the social media–age compulsion to be constantly “in the know”

Branding itself as the “new neighborhood watch,” with “real-time crime and safety alerts,” the app promises a sense of security that is aimed at making users feel safe and prepared. “Look!” my friend said, pulling up a video on her phone. “That guy’s got a crow bar. That’s only three miles away, can you believe that?” What we were seeing had taken place in Plainfield, whose three miles’ distance included a six-lane highway and a mountainous woods. Growing up, the eastbound townships along Route 22 had been cast in our imagination as distant, faraway urban enclaves with drugs, crime, suffering schools, inauspicious sports programs — characteristics meant to signal class and racial disparities across space. Plainfield was close, but it might as well have been worlds away from my friend’s house. It was designed that way.

“If God forbid anything like this should happen,” she said, pointing to a black felt box on a desk across the room, containing a gun, “I have that. For emergencies.” It was a few days after Christmas, her partner was out of town, and she was alone in the house for a week. The security app helped to make her feel safe, albeit by alerting her to “threats” she wouldn’t otherwise have registered — providing a flow of footage from the surveillance camera trained ominously on her doorstep, a point-of-view seen mostly in crime stories and horror movies, and pushing through updates from equally paranoid neighbors. The device seemed not preventative but preemptive — it turned general unease into acute fears it alone could resolve, collapsing regional geography into a plane of potential threat.

 This effect is nothing new: From the invention of the burglar alarm telegraph in the 19th century, to the formation of the National Neighborhood Watch a century later, to the smart home revolution of today, the history of home security reveals that technologies are only successful as their ability to capitalize on structural and cultural insecurities. Just like their predecessors, this latest batch of digital resources for “reducing crime” capitalize on the symptoms of structural and systemic issues — poverty, inequality — while eliding the causes. They also play on the social media-age ­­compulsion to be constantly “in the know” through constantly updating newsfeeds and notifications. Whether the information is contextually accurate, or indeed useful at all, is beside the point.

 Ring was first created in 2011 as “Doorbot,” an invention of Jamie Siminoff, who’d created a wi-fi system to alert his phone when someone came to his door. His wife said the device made her feel safer when she was alone in the house. Billing it as a security resource with the noble goal of “reducing crime in communities,” Siminoff pitched Doorbot on Shark Tank at the end of 2013, but failed to find a partnership. Another entrepreneur suggested he rename the device “Ring,” evoking unity, trust, and status; five years and a rebrand later, it sold to Amazon in an $800 million deal.

Ring is sold by Amazon as a central component to the modern “smart home,” but it’s only the latest successor in a long line of home security technologies. The burglar alarm as we know it today begins with the invention of the electrical telegraph in 1837, which used coded electric pulses through a network of wires to carry messages at a distance; in the 1850s, it was adapted to create city-wide fire alert systems in New York and Boston. The first burglar alarm to make use of the same technology was patented in 1853 by Augustus Russel Pope, who, before his death in 1858, sold his patent to Edwin Holmes for nearly $10,000.

Holmes moved his business, the Holmes’s Burglar Alarm Telegraph Company, to New York City, where “all the burglars of the world make their home.” Industrialization and a period of mass immigration in the 19th century had brought rapid urbanization to New York; mass transit changed the city’s spatial arrangement, while factory production resulted in more specialized use of land. The city was changing, and these changes brought an increased desire for a sense of security and protection. Holmes distributed pamphlets as marketing materials, including testimonials from previous customers: “I feel compelled to give testimony in regard to the feeling of security which it affords against robbery,” C.W. Harper wrote in 1868. “Before it had been in operation in my house, a feeling of insecurity pervaded the household… now we retire at night conscious that no successful attempt at robbery can be made.”

Simply feeling fear equates to threat and insecurity. Ring is a performative strategy to manage this sense of vulnerability

This testimony points to an important emotional dimension of what the device provided: a feeling of safety and security. Harper, like my friend in Watchung, conflates feeling secure with being secure. The device was not just useful for deflecting robbery attempts but for shoring up the idea of a safe, impregnable home amid a rapidly changing urban environment. The burglar alarm found widespread appeal as the century wore on, eventually linking individual homes with preexisting fire and police alert systems, and making use of infrared motion detection technology. Its import was significantly shaped by the cultural climate following World War II, with the rise of the segregated American suburb, and Cold War anxiety fomenting fears of an “enemy within” while normalizing surveillance as a security measure.

The rise of Neighborhood Watch programs through the 1970s built on the notion, encouraged during the postwar years, that paranoid vigilance was a collective responsibility. Founded in 1972 as an official entity of the National Sheriffs Association, the initiative deputized citizens as the “eyes and ears” of law enforcement. It was part of a process of migration from “Big Government” toward a neoliberal paradigm of privatization, downloading responsibility for crime prevention onto citizens. Protecting the sanctity of one’s home and one’s family, in this manner of thinking, became an individual responsibility, and suspicion — falling along lines of race and class — a personal and social obligation, a matter of due diligence.

Ring advertises itself as the “New Neighborhood Watch.” The call to action is implied; Amazon has already aggressively pursued partnerships with police departments across the nation, allowing officers to request access to Ring users’ footage in return for promoting the Neighbors app.

When opening the Neighbors app, regardless of whether there has been activity on your Ring device, threat is near and imminent. Ring promises to make its users “feel secure,” but its function defeats its purpose: barraged by a constant flow of potentially threatening information, users develop a deeper sense of insecurity as they learn about all the potential threats they’re exposed to.

An article by Caroline Haskins in Motherboard describes an internal review of 100 user-submitted posts in the Neighbors app between Dec 2018 and February 2019. Using Vice’s Brooklyn headquarters in Brooklyn as the home address and the maximum radius of five miles, the sample “Neighborhood” encompassed lower Manhattan, most of Queens, and parts of Hoboken, harnessing occurrences across disparate communities within a relatively arbitrary radius: mileage hardly accounts for the structural, material, and environmental boundaries. In Motherboard’s review, the majority of people reported as “suspicious” were people of color, who in many cases were simply caught on someone’s Ring camera going about their lives. A group of six young people walking up a stairway was posted with the title “six gang members going to the roofs.” Amplifying and normalizing this explicit racial bias has life-threatening consequences.

Ring capitalizes on an ambient panic, focalizing it into a concrete threat about which something can be done, even if that something is merely constant refreshing

Like much of our smart technology and social media, Ring/Neighbors stokes the compulsion to be “in the know.” The market is saturated with technologies that aim to provide users with “necessary” information that was never necessary before: Fitness apps and devices count our calories, track our steps, monitor our heart rate; we can check our credit score at any time with various services; news apps are algorithmically tailored to show us the content we’re interested in, and to offer more news as an antidote for the fears and insecurities stoked by what the news reports. Information is posed as our primary tool to hedge against future threats and adapt our behaviors accordingly. The interface of Neighbors offers pre-visualized risks that, although seriously lacking in context, provide a sense of certainty in the face of limited knowledge, and a clear path to protection.

 Fear — mediated and regulated through moral norms — acts as a “cultural metaphor to express claims, concerns, values, moral outrage, and condemnation,” argues sociologist and contemporary fear theorist Frank Furedi. We process fear through a prevailing system of meaning that mediates and informs people about what is expected of them when confronted with a threat. It also poses a threat in and of itself, where simply feeling fear, or feeling insecure, equates to threat and insecurity. Ring, then, is a performative strategy to manage fears related to this sense of vulnerability. Despite posing itself as a tool to “bring communities together to create safer neighborhoods,” it offers hardly any concrete opportunities to connect and bridge those divisions through anything but increased fear. Anonymous neighbors sit behind a screen with their own personal sets of anxieties, and map those beliefs onto common enemies defined by structural prejudices, siloing themselves into a worldview that conveniently attends to their own biases. 

Today, violent crime is at its lowest rate in decades, but data from Gallup and Pew Research Center show that public perception is that crime is on the rise. These fears are encouraged, of course, by demagogues who foment fear of “intruders” for political gain, and to deflect blame for real threats like income inequality, climate catastrophe, housing crises and a shrinking social safety net. Ring capitalizes on an ambient panic, focalizing a general sense of anxiety and helplessness into a concrete threat, about which something can be done, even if that something is merely constant refreshing.

Once back in Santa Cruz after the holidays, I downloaded Neighbors for myself out of curiosity. I had a feeling that most of the videos I’d see based on the three-mile radius from my house would be of petty theft. The feed was littered with videos of people checking car doors, taking packages, and one video showed someone stealing the cushions from another person’s porch swing.

Though there was hardly anything violent, the comment section in much of the content was disproportionately aggressive. At the time, there had been a homeless encampment behind the local Ross department store. Some users called for others to join them in “taking care of the camp” themselves, since City Council wasn’t doing anything about it. One comment asked about the use of facial recognition technology to identify individuals in the daytime, so they could be targeted for retaliatory measures.

Homelessness and petty theft are known issues to most people living in Santa Cruz, and they point to the broader dimensions of social problems that the housing crisis has amplified. Wealthy property owners and landlords make up much of the old, conservative culture of the city, frequently employing anti-poor, anti-homeless, anti-rent control rhetoric. Yet research conducted by the No Place Like Home project found that 84 percent of the homeless population in Santa Cruz were former residents of Santa Cruz County before becoming homeless.

How close are any of us to losing our housing because the landlord is tripling rent? Issues like rent-burden, overcrowding, and forced moves, combined with the rising cost of living — in the ballpark of a 52 percent increase over the past four years — and stagnant wages mean that renters, who make up 60 percent of the population, are not so insulated from the precarity of an unstable housing market. As the “new neighborhood watch,” with the promise to “proactively keep you in the know,” Ring and Neighbors inflate the threat of home invasion. What they represent is much more threatening.

Keli Gabinelli is an independent scholar, media theorist and activist living in Santa Cruz, California. She is constantly obsessing and analyzing digital technologies’ dystopian potentials, while organizing around the housing crisis and lamenting late capitalism with her comrades in DSA.