New Home Safety Technology Appears To Facilitate Racism

Abeni Jones
November 12, 2019

It’s no secret that new technology, especially social media, can be used for destructive purposes, from police officers in racist Facebook groups to cyberbullying. Facebook is currently in trouble for its stance on misinformation that spreads on its platform.

But a new partnership between Amazon, the largest company in the world, and police departments across America is making activists worried.

Amazon sells a home security system called Ring, a network of linked video cameras and apps to view everything that’s going on inside - and, crucially, outside - one’s home. Its doorbell cameras show homeowners who is at the door before they choose whether to answer it, and motion-sensitive cameras record video whenever someone is near the front of the house - whether they consent to being filmed or not.

This is a privacy violation, say activists. “Users can shame people or unrightly label people or behavior as suspicious,” says Molly Wood, a tech journalist. 

She also interviewed Laura Norén, a cybersecurity expert, who says that facial recognition efforts by Ring in particular can have issues: “[I]f I have the Ring cameras, I can say, ‘All these are safe people.... If it’s not one of these people, consider them unsafe.’”

Black Americans have long known that “neighborhood watch” efforts to identify which strangers are “safe” and which are “unsafe” are often used to their detriment. The murder of Trayvon Martin by a “neighborhood watch” volunteer, George Zimmerman, set off a national conversation about race and criminalization that continues today.

Recent studies of Nextdoor, an online service that creates a digital version of a neighborhood watch via neighborhood-based online social networks, has been plagued with accusations of racism for years

“I literally know every time a black person comes in the neighborhood,” Rebecca Stinton, a Black woman living in Wisconsin, told The Root. “It makes me so angry to see so much casual racism that I deleted the [Nextdoor] app.”

Activists fear the same could be happening with Amazon Ring and similar doorbell camera-equipped safety systems, especially since Amazon has recently partnered with police departments across the country to access the video recorded through those cameras.

Because Black people are often stereotyped as “dangerous” or “criminal,” activists fear racism will be manifested in which videos get shared with police, facilitating an even more direct criminalization of Blackness than was evident in the Nextdoor study.

“With no oversight and accountability,” says an open letter to Amazon signed by over 30 civil rights organizations, “Amazon’s technology… [allows] police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely.” They also argue that footage can be used to enter innocent Black people into police facial recognition databases.

Amazon has responded by pointing to its moderation and community standards: “All content submitted to our app is reviewed to ensure that it adheres to our community guidelines, including our policies against racial profiling.” They did not respond to activists’ fears about what will happen to the footage once it is in police departments’ hands.

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