Roving Eyes

Surveillance cameras on private vehicles expand a landscape of paranoia

Full-text audio version of this essay.

What happens when a networked surveillance system like Amazon’s web of Ring doorbell cameras is no longer fixed to particular homes but goes mobile? Meet Canopy, the “first smart vehicle security system accessory,” according to its developer, a joint venture between Ford Motor Co. and ADT security monitoring. Launching in early 2023, the system uses acoustic sensors, onboard cameras, radar, LTE, and GPS to detect “true threats” to a vehicle and its contents. A promotional video makes the initial target demographic plain: A man approaches a pickup truck on a suburban street, as overlaid text tells viewers of the $7.4 billion of property lost to auto theft and items stolen out of vehicles. When the interloper peers into the truck’s utility bed to see that it’s filled with tools, the truck’s owner is alerted on his phone and shown the view from one of the onboard cameras. At that point, the phone becomes a megaphone, as the owner shouts a message through speakers installed in the vehicle: “Hey, get away from my truck!” The interloper scurries away and the truck owner returns to his workbench, smiling to himself at the ease and effectiveness of the networked intervention.

It’s plain even in its own promotional video that Canopy is designed to keep bodies out of designated spaces

While pitched as protecting property, it’s plain even in its own promotional video that Canopy is designed to keep bodies out of designated spaces. The system is just the latest entrant into the growing market for domestic security (read: surveillance), in which “defense systems” are promoted as necessary accouterments to contemporary life. The word defense in this context suggests a kind of militarization of normative domesticity, playing on concepts of homeland, sovereign territory, and invasion — the oppositional poles of “us” and “them.” But who is the “us” and who is the “them”? What role does a system like Canopy’s play in articulating and reinforcing such distinctions?

The current rise of the market for civilian surveillance tools can seem like a direct result of new technological capabilities: the wireless networks, phones, cameras, and so on that make it possible. But it also must be situated ideologically. Much of the suburban paranoia about safety can be explained in terms of inflammatory crime reporting, itself based on legacies of segregation and racism. Artifacts like Canopy and Ring participate in the fetishization of “law and order,” which in suburban areas are largely defined in terms of their uniformity. Under such conditions, civilian surveillance tools can be sold as helping keep things in their rightful place, and the “wrong” bodies out of them. As Simone Browne argues in Dark Matters, surveillance tech that operates on and amplifies racial biases have a deep historical legacy.

The monitoring of difference was further rationalized in the response to 9/11: Surveillance technology’s development and dissemination was expandeed through the declaration of an amorphous “war on terror” that was essentially to be fought everywhere and forever against racialized others, and the passing of the Patriot Act, which undermined individual privacy rights. Technologies like Ring respond in part to what legal scholar Frédéric Mégret has termed the “vanishing of the battlefield”: Rather than defined zones of conflict, the entire environment becomes saturated with threats; violence can spontaneously erupt anywhere. Private surveillance systems appear as increasingly necessary to establish safe zones against the omnipresent threats. But the implementation of such systems and the creation of such zones merely reinforces the durability of the threat. The devices are premised on securing a space and a life free of conflict, but they instead testify to the permanent presence of a battlefield that knows no limits.

When a Ring is set up to “secure” a fixed territory, it re-creates the environment of threat in which it is nestled, blurring the lines between civic and militarized space. It demarcates borderlands, making residential and civic spaces into territories to be defended, in competition with each other to be the least vulnerable. Canopy makes this rearticulation of territory mobile, defined by where Canopy-equipped vehicles go, where they park, and how long they stay there. This is vividly rendered in the promotional video, where a group of mostly trucks sit as if deployed in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac, depicted with pulsating turquoise circles around them, representing their overlapping zones of operation. The scene effectively illustrates the division of space, with zones between these perimeters forming irregular corridors or borderlands.

Those circles represent spaces that have been invisibly marked as protected, but that is simultaneously to declare their contingent insecurity. Pedestrians will frequently and unknowingly pass through these spaces, while walking along sidewalks or cutting between parked vehicles, as is routine in urban settings, only to be identified as both suspect and target. Much as when people encounter municipal surveillance cameras, their images are entered into a database, for any number of potential future uses.

Although many Americans tend to resent the intrusion of private drones as domestic aerial surveillance, the market for video surveillance continues to expand and is expected to surpass $21.8 billion by 2026. Much like a drone, the Canopy system can be operated remotely and can be transferred into territory over which the owner has no special rights. This has implications for the spaces into which they intrude. The militarized rhetoric attached to the security system — which naturalizes the existence of “enemies” who don’t need to be understood but identified, categorized,  and “eliminated” — gets operationalized wherever a Canopy vehicle parks, which means the vehicle can be used to import insecurity and conflict to anyone’s neighborhood.

As with drones, there is an asymmetrical geopolitical logic at play. Canopy is likely to be used by people from privileged demographics and deployed against those in stigmatized ones. Vehicle-based surveillance has the ability to produce a motor-vehicle-based iteration of Derek Gregory’s “drone geographies” — the division of the world into areas where surveillance can and can’t be imposed by outside forces — as trucks are deployed from gentrified neighborhoods to potentially marginalized or underdeveloped areas for work purposes, to return each evening to the “homeland.”

Ring and Canopy prime people to see threats or feel as if they are seen as threatening, depending on where they stand

Drones offer the opportunity to conduct warfare at a distance, to marginalize conflict and move it away from home for those who operate them, where it can appear managed, controlled, contained, or invisible to foreign publics at a distance.  The experience is very different for those in the territory subject to surveillance. As media scholar Lisa Parks argues in Rethinking Media Coverage: Vertical Mediation and the War on Terror, “drone operations shape where people move and how they communicate, which buildings stand and which are destroyed, who shall live and who shall die. The drone is as much a technology of inscription as it is of technology of sensing or representation.” That is, the drone doesn’t simply watch over spaces; it dictates how people behave. They know that their bodily gestures, the routes they take, the objects they hold, and the company they keep may dictate whether they live or die. They all contribute to the “patterns of life” that will be categorized from above as benign, suspicious, or threatening.

The security cameras of domestic surveillance systems, fixed or mobile, bring a similar dynamic to the territory they surveil, activating what Gregory calls a “techno-cultural hermeneutics of suspicion.” What military drones do to warfare, these tech systems seek to perform for other forms of domestic social conflict. They contribute to a kind of digital redlining, by which cities are divided along socioeconomic and racialized lines and where access to amenities such as banking, insurance, and health care become more difficult. As a result, the asymmetry of power and wealth articulated by these divisions continues to grow.

Networked surveillance, like drones, can extract “patterns of life” from the data they collect and serve them up for analysis, as when Canopy promises AI-driven video technology to help distinguish, in the company’s words, “true threats” from “benign acts.” But the systems for assessing these patterns for the degree or threat they should be taken to represent will be inflected by racialized bias, under which Black and Brown men are already more likely to be surveilled and profiled as criminals. The patterns of life may serve as proxies for marginalized identities, as well as a means of racializing subjects who pass through the surveilled territories. The racialized lens of surveillance allows for the targeting individuals and reinscription of borders so that “the body becomes battlefield,” as Gregory puts it.

As surveillance systems proliferate, the identities of who is “watcher” and who is “watched” is also destabilized by the strenuous efforts to secure them. The roles of suspect and surveillant shift depending on environments and status. A homeowner whose home is equipped with a doorbell cam might visit a bank machine, going from watcher to watched. A flexible mesh of paranoia encases the entire social field.

A gaze primed with suspicion can also lead to fatal error. This is evident, for example, in a U.S.-led drone strike in Kabul last August that killed ten civilians, including seven children. A subsequent investigation by the New York Times revealed that the error was a result of confirmation bias: That is, if you are looking for terrorists you will “find” them. If you look for children, you will see them. Ring and Canopy are also instantiations of confirmation bias: They prime people to see threats or feel as if they are seen as threatening, depending on where they stand at a particular moment and how they are already marked socially.

If, as Gregory argues, borderlands provide the state with “the moral warrant for unleashing what Manan Ahmed calls its ‘righteous violence,’” — exemplified by the recent (and seemingly endless) surge of inhumane ingenuity at the U.S.’s southern border involving robotic dogs and migrant-tasing drones — what might the domestic surveillance systems warrant for private citizens in the borders that their cameras posit everywhere? What ingenious devices will tech companies provide them with next to carry it out?

Right now, Canopy is slated to be available in popular models such as the F-150 truck series and the Transit van. But it plans to expand beyond its initial marketing demographic of construction workers and tradespeople to a broader commuting populace. Ford and ADT want to extend the Canopy system past the Ford brand and precipitate a market demand that will make the tech ubiquitous in newer vehicles. These companies are enacting a standard tech formula in which “expansion” is the automatic corollary to “innovation.”

The future that Canopy and Ring are helping build is one where neighborhoods are populated by “suspects” and interactions infected with mistrust

As the reach of technology is expanded, so are its capabilities augmented. To see what might be to come in domestic surveillance technology, one need only consider the contemporary applications and interventions used by the military. One can imagine Canopy incorporating thermographic imaging sensors — a powerful and dehumanizing military technology that makes people into what Parks calls “spectral subjects,” whose heat signatures can become incriminating registers. More certain is that new partnerships with police will be on the table, as with Amazon’s partnership with law enforcement agencies for promoting Ring. Such arrangements are likely to reproduce the inequities and asymmetries of drone geographies, enhancing the power of the most privileged and increasing the vulnerability of the most precarious. Domestic surveillance technology will be used against those least able to protect themselves in judicial systems whose laws have been designed to facilitate their incarceration.

Doorbell cams, CCTV cameras, or computer cameras as part of proctoring applications all make people more aware of their movements and prescribe a restricted vocabulary of movement. Canopy will have the same effect, dispersing it wherever vehicles can drive and park. With enough of these sensors — in doorbells and cars, on light posts, and the dashes of automobiles — soon all of public space will be calibrated into “safety” zones or temporary self-proclaimed “sovereign” corridors, making public environments into mosaics of border- and homelands. The lawful navigation of these spaces will be determined, of course, by the same people who design “justice” and protection for the privileged, while harming the most vulnerable.

The most important danger of contemporary tech may not be in the “now” but rather in its unchecked ability to change into something more powerful. It’s a precaution neatly encapsulated in Chris Gilliard’s adage that “every future imagined by a tech company is worse than the previous iteration.” The future that Canopy and Ring are helping build is one that will be curated according to epidermal categories to distinguish who does and doesn’t belong. Neighborhoods will be populated by “suspects” and interactions infected with mistrust. And, like many artifacts of surveillance technology, its harms fall first and foremost on the marginalized. Canopy will mobilize these harms in collaboration with other surveillance tech unless we short-circuit the current.

Tracy Valcourt is a writer based in Montréal.