The Cop In Your Neighbor’s Doorbell: Amazon Ring and the Spread of Participatory Mass Surveillance

Calacci, Dan; Shen, Jeffrey J.; Pentland, Alex

Consumer surveillance products such as 'smart' doorbell cameras are an already-pervasive phenomenon in the U.S. These devices are marketed as personal and community security tools that allow users to answer their front door remotely, record "suspicious activity" captured by their cameras, and share reports with neighbors. The widespread use of doorbell cameras specifically, however, has created an opaque, wide-reaching surveillance network used by thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide. The full breadth of this network and how users operate on such platforms is largely unknown. Amazon Ring, one of the largest manufacturers of smart doorbells, offers a companion social networking app to their physical doorbells called Ring Neighbors that allows camera owners to share video and text posts with other camera owners that live nearby. In this paper, we use data collected from public posts on Neighbors to create the first comprehensive map and analysis of smart doorbell camera use across the continental U.S. We use spatial regression methods to estimate the county-level predictors of Neighbors app usage nationally. We then use Los Angeles, one of the most active areas of Ring usage in the country, as a case study to investigate how different neighborhoods in a racially heterogeneous city use a platform like Ring. Using a structured topic analysis and experimental survey design, we show that users actively frame video subjects as criminal and suspicious, that the race of a neighborhood has a significant impact on posting rates, and provide some evidence that Neighbors may be used as a racial gatekeeping tool, particularly by white neighborhoods that border non-white areas in Los Angeles.