Caught in a web of spies

Watch out or we’ll all be caught in a web of spies

The fall of Matt “Hands > Face > Buttocks” Hancock felt distinctly retro. Not just his antics — who would have thought a cabinet minister would be scuppered by a sex scandal in the age of the priapic PM Boris Johnson? — but the way it was revealed: CCTV. During Tony Blair’s imperial years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, debates raged about the use, abuse and prevalence of surveillance across the UK.

The iPhone arrived in the shops on 29 June 2007, two days after Tony Blair left Number 10 for the last time as Prime Minister. The end of the Blair era was also the beginning of the end for serious public debates about how, when, and why we are watched. In the iPhone age – smartphones existed before Apple entered the phone business but most were dreadful – we have become a species of spies, watching as much as we are watched.

On the day I sat down to write this column, two headlines perched together on The Guardian website summed up the situation perfectly. One read “I spy: are smart doorbells creating a global surveillance network?”, the other asked “Have I gone too far in monitoring my children’s online activity?” Betteridge’s Law says that any headline ending in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”, but for every rule there are exceptions.


The smart doorbells — wi-fi connected cameras affixed to doors across the world and pushed hard by our dystopia-hastening chum at Amazon — are becoming a global surveillance network. Where once you could amuse and unsettle yourself by counting the number of CCTV cameras squatting atop poles like robotic rooks, now you can play spot the spycam as you stride past your neighbours’ front doors.

Amazon’s Ring doorbell, which brings to mind both the “one ring to rule them all” in Lord of the Rings and that trilogy’s ever-watchful eye of Sauron, is the market leader. It made up eighteen per cent of total sales last year, with the company shifting 1.4 million units. Ring allows owners not just to see who is on their doorstep or, in fact, simply walking past but to speak to them from wherever they are.

There are thousands of videos on YouTube from this self-installed global surveillance network. Amazon’s Ring division itself delights in posting crowdsourced footage that tells heart-warming stories it can claim were enabled only by their doorbells. For example, there’s the tale of how “seven-year-old Taylor went to a neighbour’s house for help when she saw a bobcat in her Arizona street” and how, while “nobody was home”, the homeowners could talk to her through Ring. The clip has 10.9 million views at the time of writing.

The final footage of Sarah Everard, who was killed in London in March 2021, was captured on a video doorbell. Amazon and police forces alike use both the heart-warming and the horrifying stories to justify this new private global surveillance network.

In July 2019, Ring made geographically targeted sponsored posts on social media services, including Facebook and Twitter, prompting users to send in tips on suspects based on footage posted to Neighbors, its virtual neighbourhood watch app. By posting footage in the app, users grant Ring (and therefore Amazon) an irrevocable, unlimited, and royalty-free licence to use it “for any purpose and in any media formats in any media channels without compensation”. Ring also partners with police forces and other law enforcement agencies in the US and UK, as well as providing match funding so towns and cities can sell Ring cameras to residents at a discount.

Ring’s strategy led the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform to launch an investigation into the company’s data-sharing partnerships with local governments and police departments. But in the UK, collaborations between Amazon and the police, like one where it gave doorbells to Suffolk constabulary to hand out in high crime areas, have largely slipped under the regulatory radar. In a country so inured to CCTV, the arrival of more silent spies doesn’t feel like big news.

Rival products like those sold by Google’s Nest division already have face recognition features and Ring has filed a patent to use networks of its devices to create “suspicious persons” databases. What feels unusual and worrying now may soon be as accepted as the CCTV that blankets our cities has become.

From sharing video doorbell footage to offering “intel” about our local areas on Facebook, WhatsApp and NextDoor, a lot of us are effectively working free double shifts for a kind of soft social media Stasi

The new abnormal in surveillance is not just that we shrug and accept it – even more so after months of checking in at bars and cafes we once swanned in and out of without a thought – but that we also participate in it. From sharing video doorbell footage to offering “intel” about our local areas on Facebook, WhatsApp and NextDoor, a lot of us are effectively working free double shifts for a kind of soft social media Stasi.

That spying tendency extends to our children’s phones and in some unwise cases to partners’ devices. “If you’ve got nothing to hide…” say those who crave a moral explanation for their amateur espionage. And in the case of young children, there’s an argument for doing it – keeping an eye on what they’re doing just like my parents did when I used our family computer – but when do you stop? As children grow up, they need to be able to talk freely with friends without Big Mother reviewing their every word.

Just because we can ceaselessly watch our doorsteps and monitor every word our children type into their phones, doesn’t mean we should. Communities with cameras everywhere and householders scrutinising every face that passes their door for potential threats are not happy places. Similarly, families where children feel endlessly under suspicion don’t tend to produce well-rounded, kind, and considerate adults. They simply encourage more ingenious kinds of secrecy.

Where does it go next? CCTV is just there now. Phone cameras are everywhere. And the video doorbells spread like some alien weed barely noticed amongst the native grass. Smartwatch health data is increasingly referenced in court cases, particularly murder trials, and body worn cameras used by police and security guards are nearly ubiquitous.

Smart glasses are just over the horizon after a few false starts (remember Google Glass?) and will bring with them face recognition, to prevent you from ever forgetting someone’s name again, alongside always-on video recording. Today’s surveillance-saturated world could end up seeming like a lost era of relative privacy. There are many more Matt Hancock-style embarrassments to come.

Mic Wright is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics

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August 2021, Life, Tech Talk

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