Authoritarian Tech

Smart doorbells and connected hoovers — when control meets convenience

This time last year, I stayed in an apartment in Chicago filled with household gadgetry. As soon a visitor approached the front gate, our phones would chirrup in warning. Then the doorbell rang, and their face promptly flashed up on our screens. Via an app, we could climate-control the house, even if we were hundreds of miles away. My hosts, who were young parents, had a camera fixed above their toddler’s crib, which beamed live video straight to their cellphones, so they could check on him when they were out to dinner. The vacuum cleaner skated around the house of its own accord – until the two-year-old tried to ride it.

I relished my time in the smart home. It gave us all an innate sense of being in control of our lives — protected, organized, not to mention temperature-regulated. But what’s the price of convenience when it means that companies – and potentially governments — can have access to the most intimate information of all: how we live behind closed doors?

This week, controversy abounded over the Ring doorbell-camera system, bought by Amazon for $829 million last year and currently used by millions of security-conscious homeowners across the world. Fears are on the rise that Ring is creating a web of tightly surveilled neighborhoods. “Amazon’s home security company is turning everyone into cops,” Vice’s Caroline Haskins wrote in February. The Ring doorbell is integrated with a social media app called Neighbors, which allows users to upload their own video streams of outside their front doors and flag “suspicious” characters. Haskins looked at the app and found users were mostly flagging people of color. 

Ring has entered into hundreds of contracts cooperating with local police departments across the U.S., which means police can request, via Ring, that customers submit their doorbell footage as evidence in investigations. This week, Gizmodo reporter Dell Cameron revealed that Ring pass data straight back to the police about those who refuse to comply with the requests. And Buzzfeed News reported that while Ring claim not to use facial recognition tech, they’ve actually employed a “head of facial recognition research” in their Ukraine office.

Panopticon-like neighborhoods aside, Carl Miller, Research Director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, made a salient point on Thursday: “One thing I’ve never considered,” he tweeted, “does the rise of things like Nest and smart homes means that it’s now literally impossible to have a secret party when your parents are away and then desperate hoover up the broken glass?! That was the core of practically every 1990s teen drama.” 

Speaking of hoovers, better not make it a smart vacuum: it may be beloved by toddlers, but turns out it has the potential to be used as a roving home CCTV system, which could be hacked. “Since the vacuum has WiFi, a webcam with night vision, and smartphone-controlled navigation, an attacker could secretly spy on the owner and even use the vacuum as a ‘microphone on wheels’ for maximum surveillance potential,” Leigh-Anne Galloway, cybersecurity resilience lead at Positive Technologies, told the Inquirer in an article about the devices last year.

Facebook’s dating app launch

Do you feel comfortable giving Facebook the keys to your love life? On Thursday, the tech giant launched their new Facebook Dating app, which creates matches using an algorithm powered by the seemingly bottomless cache of data it has on every user. I have to admit, I find the idea both chilling and alluring. After all, as a company, Facebook knows us better than almost anyone. For millennials like myself, it’s been there since adolescence: privy to all our crushes, obsessions, break-ups, loves, friendships and failures. Thousands of potential data points could help find the perfect match. But then we remember that only recently Facebook was fined $5 billion – a record amount – by the Federal Trade Commission for violating users’ privacy. With this in mind, Facebook put privacy front and center of its launch: “We’re committed to protecting people’s privacy within Facebook Dating so that we can create a place where people feel comfortable looking for a date,” the company said in a statement

At a lecture at the London School of Economics in August, political philosopher Professor Michael Sandel appeared to predict that such an app would soon be in existence. You can listen to the talk, called “Will AI make thinking obsolete?” here. 

Isobel Cockerell

Isobel is a filmmaker, radio reporter and multimedia journalist for Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she specializes in covering disinformation, authoritarian technology, and the human stories beneath.

Life before Coda: Production for USA Today’s The City, an investigative documentary podcast digging into environmental racism in Chicago. Freelance journalist reporting to The Daily Beast, Eurasianet and the Huffington Post.

Get in touch via [email protected]

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