In this data artifact analysis, I explore the concept of privacy across actors and networks within the Amazon Ring Doorbell and the accompanying Neighbors app. I will explore privacy as a data artifact through its digital representations as follows. First, I will explore the functional aspects and design of Ring and the Neighbors app to explore how privacy is afforded. Next, I will review a variety of definitions of privacy. Finally, I will consider the complex layering of networks and actors to reveal the conflicts of privacy in Ring and the Neighbors app and the actors therein.
Amazon’s Ring Doorbell (Ring) and the Neighbors app serve as a means for conducting surveillance to record video of activities around a residence for privacy protection. Ring is a combination doorbell and motion activated video recording device that has visibility range of 5’ – 30’. Video is recorded and saved only with a purchased, monthly protection account, and the customers can choose what self-identifying information (name, address, etc.) is accessible in conjunction with their videos as a privacy measure. Customers can share their videos via the Neighbors app. The Neighbors app is designed like a social networking site: customers can like, comment, or share posts (internally or externally). The Neighbors app includes a law enforcement portal to provide access for over 400 agencies to request videos in support of any active investigation (Harwell, 2019). Customers share their videos at will; no legal warrant is required to facilitate this exchange. Amazon disavows liability for any breach of individual privacy through the use of Ring or the Neighbors app. Instead, Amazon purports that it will not share any content or identifying information without a subpoena. Amazon preserves video recordings up to 30 days and can grant an extension upon legal request. Finally, there are no privacy terms outlined in either Ring or the Neighbors app to delineate limitations of use and preservation that consider the privacy of a recorded individual.
The social considerations of privacy include the interactions between two or more actors; i.e., human individuals, corporate entities, government organizations, and other technological devices. For the sake of this paper, I will limit the definitions of privacy to reflect upon access, autonomy/agency, and social norms. First, privacy can be defined by the relationship between autonomy and access. Anthony et al (2017) define privacy as “access of one actor to another [which] means that privacy refers to what people conceal and reveal and what others acquire and ignore” (Anthony et al, p. 251). As such, privacy is expressed as a form of agency by an individual through any means of expression or representation that they elect to share. Margulis (2003) also offers a definition of privacy through the management of access as “control over or regulation of or, more narrowly, limitations on or exemption from scrutiny, surveillance, or unwanted access” (Margulis, p. 244). Baghai (2012) references Warren and Brandeis (1890) as the historical source for fostering legal conceptions of privacy as a form of communication, again highlighting agency and access: “a right to selective self-preservation; to control how, when, where, and to whom particular aspects of one’s life and personality are communicated” (Baghai, p. 953). Furthermore, Brandeis et al note (1890) that the privacy of an individual can be protected through the use of any means of technology, in order to move legal protections beyond material forms to immaterial forms:
the existing law affords a principle which may be invoked to protect the privacy of the individual from invasion either by the too enterprising press, the photographer, or the possessor of any other modern device for recording or reproducing scenes or sounds (Brandeis et al, p. 206).
Privacy is not simply of the individual, however, it is also of “groups and […] organizations” (Margulis, p. 248) Anthony et al note the role of social and privacy norms as a shared understanding within a group: “[w]hen norms are violated, individuals may feel invaded or isolated, or they may feel that another actor is being too secretive or exposing too much” (Anthony et al, p. 251). The shared understanding of social norms and privacy norms requires a public exchange to reach consensus. It is necessary for social groups to normalize behaviors through the creation of others, outsiders, and actions that are in violation of the norms:
People are more accepting of monitoring that appears to target the “other”—that is, members of an out-group rather than themselves (Anthony et al, p. 254).
The social creation of the other justifies a means for surveillance to protect an actor’s sense of privacy. The collaborative construction of privacy by groups of actors and organizations complicates and suppresses the individual right to privacy.
In the context of Ring and the Neighbors app, we see plural layers of networks and systems that serve as actors within an ecosystem of video surveillance and protection: the individual as a customer, the individual as an intruder, corporate entities, and government agencies. The Neighbors app leverages the design of social networking sites to serve as a public to facilitate the exchange of privacy norms and normalize surveillance. In other words, when customers share their Ring videos the shared understanding of privacy are revealed. However, it is difficult to pinpoint which privacy is occurring while considering the complex layering of actors and networks at play in Ring and the Neighbors app: (1) the customer who purchased the Amazon Ring Doorbell in order to surveil others to ensure that their sense of privacy is not breached; (2) the individual who is unknowingly being filmed by Ring and their sense of privacy being breached; (3) Amazon as an organization disavowing any liability in the breach of individual privacy through the use of their technologies as a form of legal protection; and (4) law enforcement utilizing the Neighbors app portal as a method to circumvent legal requirements for acquiring evidence through the public request for sharing video at will. When does privacy occur for the individual actor if a collective of actors, organizations, and agencies have competing senses of privacy? Future research will require an investigation of how privacy is prioritized within layered systems and networks.
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Baghai, K. (2012). Privacy as a human right: A sociological theory. Sociology, 46(5), 951–965. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038512450804
Benjamin, G. (2017). Privacy as a cultural phenomenon. Journal of Media Critiques, 3(10). https://doi.org/10.17349/Jmc117204
Harwell, D. (2019, August 28). Doorbell-camera firm Ring has partnered with 400 police forces, extending surveillance concerns. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/08/28/doorbell-camera-firm-ring-has-partnered-with-police-forces-extending-surveillance-reach/
How Law Enforcement Uses the Neighbors App. (2020). Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://support.ring.com/hc/en-us/articles/360031595491-How-Law-Enforcement-Uses-the-Neighbors-App
How Your Local Law Enforcement Agency Uses Neighbors. (2020). Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://support.ring.com/hc/en-us/articles/360035191912-How-Your-Local-Law-Enforcement-Agency-Uses-Neighbors
Margulis, S. T. (2003). Privacy as a social issue and behavioral concept. Journal of Social Issues, 59(2), 243–261. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4560.00063
Ring Law Enforcement Guidelines. (2020). Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://support.ring.com/hc/en-us/articles/360037954771-Ring-Law-Enforcement-Guidelines
Warren, S.D. & Brandeis, L.D. (1890).The right to privacy. Harvard Law Review 4(5): 193-220.