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Big Bezos is watching you Amazon is facilitating a citizen-led surveillance revolution

Good neighbours? Jeff Bezos has his sights set on the surveillance society. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty

Good neighbours? Jeff Bezos has his sights set on the surveillance society. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty

August 19, 2019   4 mins

Does Amazon’s Jeff Bezos ring your bell? Perhaps not, but should you visit a home equipped with a Ring Doorbell system then you’ll be ringing one of his. The Ring brand is owned by Amazon, and its range of hi-tech video doorbells are proving both popular and controversial.

It’s not that video door entry systems are anything new. They’ve been available for decades. The Ring system, however, is easy to use and pretty affordable. It’s also fully digital – on your smartphone or tablet, you can look at what your doorbell sees and have the footage stored online for a modest monthly fee.

In America, a Ring doorbell can be yours for as little as $99 – or nothing at all if your local police force is giving them away to residents. The New York Post reports on the cops’ enthusiasm for these gadgets:

“…as more police agencies join with the company known as Ring, the partnerships are raising privacy concerns. Critics complain that the systems turn neighborhoods into places of constant surveillance and create suspicion that falls heavier on minorities. Police say the cameras can serve as a digital neighborhood watch.”

We’ve come to think of CCTV as a top-down intervention – the province of law enforcement agencies and security services. Indeed, the spread of CCTV networks conjures up the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a totalitarian state has its citizens under continuous surveillance, not least through the ubiquitous Telescreens.

However, unlike Orwell’s dystopia, the reach of CCTV in the real world is limited. Indeed, the state sometimes struggles to fund installation, maintenance and monitoring – leading to cuts in coverage. But rather than celebrate their liberation from the all-seeing-eye of the state, local people tend to react with dismay: never underestimate the popularity of security.

The technology is advancing – becoming cheaper, smaller and smarter. With Amazon and other providers developing video surveillance as a mass consumer product, the old top-down model of deployment and control is giving way to something more decentralised and, some might say, insidious.

Back in 2017, I speculated that it might not be long before ordinary members of the public start creating their own surveillance networks – and joining them up through social media:

“Access to existing CCTV networks is generally controlled by private businesses or public bodies… however the ultra-cheap (and therefore widely owned) internet-connected sensors of the future may operate on a different model – feeding information into a shared system in much the same way that we currently feed our photographs into Facebook and Instagram.  

“Whichever website does the best job of integrating data from the ubiquitous sensors of the near future will become the dominant digital platform of the 21st century.”

In 2019, the age of bottom-up, citizen-led surveillance is well-and-truly underway. It’s not a surveillance state we’re building, but a surveillance society, catered to by a surveillance market.

A particularly interesting feature of the Ring system is the Neighbors App. It is mentioned in a report by Wesley Dockery for the International Business Times:

“One of Ring’s services, Neighbors, allows members of a community to share safety information and suspicious footage captured on their Ring doorbells in a shared network, akin to Facebook’s news feed.”

It’s easy to see the direction this technology is going in.

As it becomes ever cheaper, more homes will use it, and each home will have more cameras creating a bubble of surveillance around each property. Surveillance social media will become more sophisticated, with neighbours granting each other access to their camera feeds. The individual surveillance bubbles will thus merge – to cover the whole street and, in time, the entire neighbourhood. The police, community groups, landlords and insurance companies will encourage the process.

Inevitably, artificial intelligence will be used to integrate and analyse camera feeds, thus eliminating the need for constant monitoring by human eyes. If surveillance bubbles are merged across wide enough an area then AI-powered image recognition of faces, objects, number plates etc. will allow users to locate, identify and track an individual or a vehicle through a neighbourhood, town or city.

So, good luck being a burglar in 10 years’ time. In fact, good luck doing anything you might get in trouble for, because within a surveillance bubble, it’s not going to go undetected. Burglars, muggers, car thieves, vandals, truants, under-the-radar adulterers and secret smokers should all beware: the streets will have eyes.

As well as looking around you for doorbell cameras, don’t forget to look up. Because, as Bobby Allyn of NPR explains, Jeff Bezos is leaving no angle unexplored:

“Going on vacation and want some extra security around your home? Someday you may be able to call Amazon’s drones.

“The Seattle tech giant is moving closer to making that scenario a real possibility after winning approval from federal officials this month for a patent for ‘home surveillance’ drones.

“Company officials stress that the plan is still in its infancy, but the patent papers describe a future in which Amazon customers order drones to hover around a home and scan for things such as a garage door left open, a broken window, graffiti or a fire.”

Ever wanted to call in a drone? One day, Amazon might be able to arrange it for you – though I imagine missile strikes won’t be an option.

The company is well placed to succeed in the surveillance society to come. It’s not just the Ring system or the Neighbors app or the vast door-to-door distribution network – or even the plans for an aerial drone delivery service. More important than any of those will be the ability to store and process the overwhelming quantities of visual data thus collected. As luck would have it, Amazon also owns AWS – one of the biggest cloud computing companies in the world. So, if anyone ends up hosting a live video feed of the entire planet, it’ll be Amazon.

In thinking about what is already possible – or soon will be – one can’t help but be impressed. That said, when one contemplates the implications for privacy, one might also feel an uncontrollable urge to sit down and cry.

But make sure you do your crying behind closed doors. You wouldn’t want the neighbours to see.

Or Jeff.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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