Civil Rights groups banded together by the dozen last month to publish an open letter demanding MGM /Amazon cancel its new viral clip show, Ring Nation. The show, hosted by comedian Wanda Sykes and launched September 26, styles itself as America’s Funniest Home Videos with a modern twist. Instead of users submitting their home videos, they are submitting their home surveillance videos straight from their Amazon-branded Ring security cameras.
While the show claims it will focus on feel-good moments like marriage proposals and puppies, concerned activists feel otherwise, writing that it is seeking to “put a happy face on Amazon’s security dragnet.”
The goal was “surveillance tv, but make it funny.” However, there is nothing funny about the racial profiling that happens due to these cameras and the normalization of a nationwide surveillance network operating with no checks and balances.
According to the letter, as first reported by The Verge, “Ring has a long history of using racially-coded dog whistles and weaponizing race to promote their products.” Citing examples of Ring cameras profiling protesters during the George Floyd protests, activists went on to extrapolate that data and what it could mean for a present in which Roe v. Wade is overturned. A future in which Amazon turns you in for getting an abortion in a state which has outlawed it?
According to Sen. Edward Markey, as of July 2022, Amazon has already given law enforcement Ring footage without user consent or a court order at least eleven times.
Users submit their own footage for Ring Nation, which they have clearly consented to sharing. However, as CancelRingNation.com points out, there is no protection “against the harms stemming from Ring’s surveilling communities at large, especially marginalized communities targeted by police.”
According to a 2020 report by NBC News, Ring signed agreements with over 800 law enforcement agencies between 2018-2020. According to TechCrunch last month, that number is now over 2,200.
“There’s a deafening lack of evidence that any city has been made safer,” remarked Liz O’Sullivan of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
True crime fans, however, are quick to point out that Ring cameras have solved murders that would not have been solved otherwise.
The family of a teen murdered in her home in Biloxi, Miss in February of 2020 found footage on their Ring camera of the five suspects entering and leaving the home. In fact, seeing an ambulance at the home on the camera was what let them know something was wrong. That footage helped police charge the suspects with capital murder and provide answers to a grieving family.
In January of 2020, the New York Times reported that UT football player Michael Egwuagu was arrested after being caught on Ring footage confessing to the murder of his pregnant sister. (Egwuagu was later found not guilty for reason of insanity).
In August 2021, a man stood outside a home in Las Vegas, ringing the doorbell while telling the woman behind the door that he planned to rape and murder the girl inside, and asking where she was. The woman was home alone, and the doorbell was a Ring camera. The clip was uploaded to Facebook where it quickly went viral, and someone was able to identify the man as Christopher Sumbs. Police were able to arrest Sumbs before anything worse happened, despite the fact that he denied being Christopher Sumbs when caught and was initially booked into Vegas county jail as John Doe.
Security cameras and electric doorbells have been around for a significant portion of the industrial revolution. The CCTV security system was invented in 1927. The electric doorbell was introduced to homes in the 1930s. By the 1970s, modern updates of both were available to large companies. The IP camera was introduced in 1996, allowing one to see the video feed anywhere in the world via the internet, according to Safehome.org. The technology was extremely expensive at the time, only accessible to corporations and the ultra-wealthy. That changed in 2012 when Jamie Siminoff invented the Doorbot Camera – which we now know as Ring.
By 2020, smart doorbells were a 1.83 billion dollar industry. The following is an oft-repeated stat but no less impressive – Ring sold a mind-blowing 400,000 devices, including smart doorbells, in Dec. 2019 alone, with the majority of those purchases being processed through Amazon.
And while the narrative continues to be that it is an overwhelmingly good thing that soon one in ten police departments may have access to your front door, the evidence fails to support it. With such a large market share over the past several years, one would expect the numbers of Ring-solved crimes to be higher than a handful.
As the forty civil rights groups that called to cancel Ring Nation stated, “[The show] is an advertisement for a bleak vision of the future, in which private megacorporations surveil our every move, sell us out to law enforcement, and profit off racism and hatred.”
If what we are looking at is thousands of people unfairly profiled and targeted versus a few criminals held responsible, then the Ring question more or less amounts to a trolley problem. And what’s more American than that?