September 4, 2020 - 7:00am

Do you have an Amazon Ring doorbell yet? Well, it’s more than a doorbell — in fact, it’s mainly a security camera. The captured images can be viewed and stored online — and also shared with others via an app.

As I’ve previously noted, Amazon has partnered with police forces in America to promote Ring — as a kind of citizen-led CCTV network. This has raised concerns about the extension of the surveillance state into every corner of our lives.

But it turns out that the spread of ‘smart doorbells’ may be something of a double-edged sword for the authorities. The BBC reports on FBI concerns that people are using this technology to remotely spy on what the police are up to.

The naïve idea of the internet as a tool of citizen empowerment has long been exploded. We know very well that governments and corporations are adept at using tech to further their control and influence over our lives. Communication networks don’t necessarily disperse power, they can just as easily be used to centralise it.

And yet there’s a reverse dynamic that’s less appreciated, which is that the technologies we most associate with top-down surveillance are becoming increasingly accessible to private citizens. As the hardware and software becomes cheaper to buy and easier to use, it becomes subject to bottom-up dynamics undirected by Government. The surveillance state is competing with a surveillance democracy.

But I wonder if the latter won’t prove more of a nuisance than the former. Certainly, there’s no doubting the sophistication of the technology now flooding the market.

Writing for Wired, Victoria Wollaston provides an excellent, if alarming, guide to what’s currently available. It’s full of such phrases as “infrared night vision sensors”, “built-in fingerprint readers” and “attack rods”. One system even has a “built-in deep learning model to detect the motion of people and vehicle shapes in real-time.” Furthermore, it can play pre-recorded messages — for instance, at someone parking in the wrong space. Imagine a nightmare neighbour with all of that kit at his or her disposal — or a burglar who knows exactly who’s in or out on your street.

In time, the best hope may be that DIY surveillance becomes so ubiquitous that criminal acts are always detected. If malefactors can’t act illegally on the information they gather then perhaps they won’t bother.

For the merely nosey, however, the future looks bright.

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