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“Get Off My Lawn” Goes Digital

Home surveillance apps like Ring and community social networks like Nextdoor aren't making anyone safer. They're allowing paranoid jerks to harass their neighbors.

A laptop's webcam serving as a home monitoring system, February 2013. Intel Free Press / Wikimedia

Nextdoor advertises itself as a “private social network for your neighborhood,” an app and site that allow residents to ask questions of their neighbors and post advertisements or missing-cat flyers: a quicker way of obtaining or disseminating information than going door to door or yelling over garden fences. The Twitter account @bestofnextdoor dutifully collates what goes wrong when digital distance leaves neighbors feeling they can vent their true feelings without reserve: testy conversations about cooking smells, noise nuisance, and untidy-looking streets become flame wars for repressed middle-aged homeowners.

One trope that often recurs is the hyper-paranoid poster uploading blurry black and white footage from their home security system, asking neighbors to identify people in the images. In one recent post, a man said that his Ring security cameras had captured footage of the individuals who had stolen his porch cushions; he then had replacement cushion covers printed with the images from the security cameras. (One hopes this cycle kept repeating until the twentieth set of cushions produced a dizzying Escher-esque effect.) Another poster showed an image of teenagers holding up their middle fingers to the camera and asked if this “was a gang sign” rather than evidence that people do not appreciate being filmed while walking on a public street.

The proliferation of home security systems, the ease with which apps can be developed, and the cheapness of basic cameras have enmeshed such systems in our digital lives. There are several worrying aspects of this personal surveillance set-up that elicit far less attention than the privacy and data ramifications of Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa.

I recently house-sat for friends who had a Ring system set up in their home. I’d ignored the huge stack of house instructions they gave me for the endless gadgets in their house until I found I couldn’t turn the lights on with my hands. I then found myself with a string of gadgets to install, including one for the doorbell. At any point in the day, if the doorbell rang, it would instantly alert me and send me a livestream of the visitor’s face. I could speak back to the person, tell them I’d be there shortly, wasn’t home, or simply to go away. I could watch from any camera I chose, wherever I was, with the app; receive alerts about any movement within certain ranges; capture images or footage and share them. I could also outsource this surveillance and pay the company to do it for me.

The system acts as an automated version of the old neighborhood watch system: you are essentially a busybody, paranoid and nervous about the people who go by your home. But it’s far more private and acceptable to add a digital security system to your home: no one knows how much time you spend examining footage and camera stills, whether you are watching at any given moment; how many people you suspect, or who you are profiling. You can’t really deny you’re a nosy neighbor if you’re marching around the neighborhood with a stack of leaflets or kicking up a stink at a community center meeting. But a slick technological interface, and the anonymity afforded by your phone, may convince you that this is not merely a new way of embodying an old and unpleasant trope, but a security necessity — as socially acceptable as ordering groceries online.

It also ramps up the paranoia: each time the app alerts you to movement detected on your property, it might be a leaf, a dog, or a burglar or murderer. If a neighbor pauses to look at your home for a while, you’d otherwise never know; but once you’re alerted, thanks to the app, you’re left wondering why on earth they did so. The digital eyes posted around you are a constant reminder that you’re trying to keep the world out of your home, creating a secure fortress, and that safety could be breached at any point.

The psychological distance the app creates is also unnerving. My flat has a normal doorbell — I have to open the door to see who’s ringing and tell them to go away if they’re not welcome. A friend of mine admits he often tells people to go away using his app if he can’t be bothered to go to the door, and has told takeaway delivery drivers to drop meals off on his porch because he’s too “busy.” Being able to bark at people you deem unworthy of even a face-to-face interaction doesn’t bode well for future interpersonal relationships if access to certain digital platforms is still premised on access to wealth.

The hazy pictures on @bestofnextdoor also reveal the huge power dynamic at the heart of this Silicon Valley-era rebirth of the neighborhood watch. People’s paranoia about protecting their wealth leads them to ramp up digital security; they appoint themselves as the effective police force, deciding what behavior counts as suspicious, what individuals fit the bill, and then plaster their images online and store footage and photographs of supposed “culprits.” Very few of the Ring photos posted involve descriptions of any crimes or antisocial behavior — the surveilled are young men, often in groups (or “gangs,” to use the loaded descriptor), often not white, and are simply hanging about. Security systems have formalized the profiling and scapegoating of young people who are already routinely othered, and allow moderately affluent people to create a digital dossier of the people they would gladly turf out of a neighborhood. Young men don’t get a say over how and whether these images of them are collected: swearing visibly at a camera is about as much power as they can wrest back in this situation.

The advertising may appear tech-savvy and claim to solve a problem that consumers have convinced themselves they experience. But the Ring et al maintain popularity because people are nosy and embittered about their front porches, and old-style neighborhood watch schemes have gotten a bad name. The Silicon Valley reboot embodies all the intrusive paranoia of the old-school meetings, but it’s slick, it lets you turn your home into a 24/7 surveillance camp, and has none of the social stigma of yelling at kids to get off your lawn.