Troubling Evolution From Marie Van Brittan Brown to Ring: If you own and use a variety of smart home security products including cameras, alarm systems or smart locks, you have to thank Marie Van Brittan Brown for all of that.
Brown was a nurse who lived in Jamaica, Queens, New York, and she started the home security revolution that directly led to the current ecosystem filled with home security products from Ring, Nest, August , Arlo, Wyze and others.
As invention stories usually do, this one started with one desire: Brown wanted to feel more secure. As a nurse, she often worked late, and her husband, Albert, was an electrician who worked irregular hours, leaving Marie home alone at night in a dangerous neighborhood. So, in 1966, she set out to design a home security system.
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Brown has devised a pretty amazing system, with the help of her husband, who has done an impressive job of leading the way in home security. His system included a closed circuit television (CCTV) system connected to monitors in the house. The camera at the door was on a pulley so it could easily slide between four different peepholes to adjust to the height of the person at the door. There was also a two-way microphone, so she could communicate with the person at the door, and an emergency button that would send an alarm to security personnel or the police. And, to top it off, Brown included a remote so she can unlock the door remotely.
Brown received a patent (US 3482037A) for his home security system in 1969. This patent has been cited by 35 other patents, including a patent issued in 2014 (US 9584775B2) for a “wireless entry communication device. Called Doorbot, now known as Ring.
A disturbing turning point
Of course, while it’s fun to take a stroll through the past to see where our fun gadgets started, it’s hard to ignore that the invention of a black woman who wanted to feel safe is now used in unsettling ways. . Over the past year, it has been impossible to ignore the Black Lives Matter movement, which has shed light on systemic racism in America. Cameras of all kinds have gone a long way in both highlighting the movement itself and in showing why movement is still needed. Police brutality and violence against blacks and people of color has always been a part of America, but it’s much more visible now that everyone has cameras in their pockets.
Unfortunately, we learn that electricity cuts both ways. Just as worried citizens can record video of police brutality, a citizen can also be “concerned” about “strangers”, “thugs”, “gang members” or any other dog whistle wording that might be. used. While it is surely possible for these types of videos to be sent to law enforcement, smart home security cameras act like a speed dial, especially when associated with social media.
Keep in mind that the biggest barrier to buying home security products is cost, and low income areas correlate with higher crime rates, so these systems are more likely to be found. in higher income neighborhoods where there is generally less crime anyway. These neighborhoods also tend to be whiter, and we’ve constantly seen what happens when whites perceive a threat: They call the police. The reason the name Karen has become a meme is that there has been a flood of stories in which white people think it is okay to call the police because they “feel” in danger for no reason. or that something is wrong. This perception of threats is a big deal in many ways, but it’s also just plain wrong. Pew Research pointed out that while violent crime and property crime have declined steadily since the 1990s, regardless of the data source, the see this crime is on the rise.
Still, any way to reduce the perception of a threat should at least be cause for pause, because when you combine the much higher likelihood of a user submitted report targeting people of color with the disproportionately known response police in cases involving blacks and people of color, it’s a story that usually doesn’t end well.
And yet, that’s the promise of a Ring security camera: security through surveillance coupled with a social feed in the form of Ring’s companion social network, “Neighbors”.
An abbreviated number for the police …
For better or worse, Ring is the standard example when it comes to the intersection of surveillance, social media bubbles, and law enforcement issues in America. There are many other smart security camera companies out there and they all comply with legal demands for video footage recorded by users’ cameras. Nest even has an easy-to-find transparency report on exactly this practice. Likewise, there are other hyperlocal social networks – like Citizen and Nextdoor.
What makes Ring special in this space is a story of partnering with law enforcement (as of January 2021, Ring had partnered with over 2,000 law enforcement and fire departments), and a public social thread in the app. Neighbors where users can post possible crimes, lost animals, or even acts of kindness in a hyperlocal area.
Police departments can easily track these messages, of course, or the police can request a video from Ring users. This option has been somewhat misunderstood overall, but should still be considered for possible misuse. Like other companies, Ring will only provide videos to law enforcement agencies to comply with legal orders, and even then Ring has introduced end-to-end encryption as an option, which means law enforcement agencies should go directly to users to get these videos. Unique to Ring is a system whereby “public safety agencies can submit a video request through Neighbors asking their community to help with an investigation by voluntarily sharing videos.” This means law enforcement can bypass the tedious process of obtaining video access warrants and simply ask the public for help.
To be fair, Ring seems acutely aware of potential issues with Neighbors, so the company is actively moderating the network. When police submit video requests, their scope and duration are limited and should include case numbers and a point of contact. More friction has been introduced when someone posts with problematic keywords. The messages can be deleted and the offending user will receive a warning email. Problematic post tags have also been removed from the app. At first the post labels in Neighbors were: Crime, Safety, Suspicious, Stranger or Lost Pet, but since then the Suspicious and Stranger options have been removed and replaced with Unexpected Activity, Neighborly Moment (a kind act), and I am not sure. Likewise, Nextdoor has removed the option to “pass to police” due to the risk of racial profiling and abuse.
… But with a social amplification of racism
Those of you who have spent even a short time on similar networks like Citizen or Nextdoor (or any other social network for that matter) can already see the problem here: strong moderation or not, it is very difficult to rid a network social racism. Add to the fact that reports of “suspicious” people disproportionately affect people of color, along with the addition of security camera footage to the Ring’s Neighbors app, and the likelihood of issues breaking out becomes quite austere.
Nextdoor has had near-constant reports of racial prejudice and outright bigotry on its network throughout its existence, as any social network large enough inevitably leads to hateful people finding cohorts. The first reports on the neighbors showed similar problems. Between December 2018 and February 2019, Vice’s motherboard examined more than 100 posts submitted by users on Neighbors and found that “the majority of people reported as ‘suspicious’ were people of color.” Other similar studies of articles on Neighbors, Nextdoor and Citizen all found that the majority of articles about supposedly suspicious people referred to people of color, and that doesn’t even enter into purely racist language used liberally, like describing black men walking up the stairs as “gang members.”
While we take to heart the changes Ring made and society’s apparent desire to be a safe space, racists can be smart and come up with unique phrasing to avoid moderation, which leaves only the heart of Ring cameras. and the Neighbors app: A public feed that can be monitored by police and a system for law enforcement to directly access a user base who might be a little more eager to help, given that they have joined the Neighbors app and may also own a Ring device. It’s easy to see why supporters like this type of system, but it’s just as easy to see why organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have spoken out against Ring in particular. It’s a system rife with abuse where Ring is likely to fight a losing battle forever.
A final point to keep in mind is that more often than not, a product that promises safety and security is either a) offering only the illusion of safety, and / or b) promoting safety and security. by stoking internal fears. We have just spent four years hearing the President of the United States promote the idea of security by persecuting “foreigners” and “others” (and generally any non-white person). Ring himself may not, but that sentiment is at the heart of the problems with social media. Apps like Nextdoor and Neighbors are not the cause of racism, but especially in the case of Neighbors and Ring, they can act as a bridge between racist sentiment and the police.
This is a very dangerous connection and compounded by signaling the questioning of effectiveness around Ring’s main mission: to make neighborhoods safer. In early 2020, NBC News spoke to 40 police departments across the country and found that 13 “had not made any arrests as a result of the Ring footage.” As previously reported, smart security systems are more often found in wealthier neighborhoods where crime is already quite low anyway, but this certainly contrasts with reports that the police used Ring cameras as part of the campaign. surveillance against the largely peaceful demonstrations of Black Lives Matter over the summer.
One can only wonder what a black nurse in Queens might think about her invention. How far technology has advanced and how it serves to exacerbate and encourage the systemic racism that so many in their time fought to end the civil rights movement.