Posted by: avaprovolo | September 29, 2021

Policing Vision: How the Emergence of Surveillance Technology in 19th Century Britain is Used Today

MIT Technology Review recently published an article, “How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras,” that eerily reflects the surveillance technology established in the 19th century, for what is a Ring camera but not an individual’s own personal watch tower in the panopticon?

Amazon Ring partnered with several police departments in the United States to help combat domestic violence; these departments gave free Ring cameras to survivors of domestic violence so they would be able to have video evidence of their abuser in the act of abusing, or in the case of one woman mentioned in the article, her abuser breaking into her house. At first glance, this appears like a perfect solution to a crime that notoriously has a lack of “hard evidence,” but upon further investigation, it becomes increasingly clear that the use of Ring cameras only serves to perpetuate the victimization of survivors. For one, there is a specific app associated with the camera that the owner and certain neighbors can access in order to alert the survivor of anything; however, there is a special portal in the app that allows for police to ask for private footage. The pervading issue of the Ring cameras is exactly that: law enforcement having intimate access to video surveillance of the survivors, their homes, as well as passerby who are then susceptible to racial profiling. The use of Ring cameras for this purpose is an evolution of the panopticon, if you will, in which the police once again have ownership over the proverbial eye and are the masters of surveillance which positions almost everyone as potential criminals; just as Victorian police and the emergence of crime photography allowed for the definition of ‘criminal’ to expand, Ring does the same, this time under the guise of protecting domestic violence survivors.

“But some domestic violence experts are concerned that these initiatives inject a combination of potentially dangerous factors into the lives of those they are supposed to protect: law enforcement that doesn’t always listen to survivors; a technology company with a patchy record on privacy and transparency; and programs launched without much department oversight—or input from experts on domestic violence.”  (Eileen Guo)

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence
Image courtesy of MIT Technology Review, by Joan Wong

The survivors of domestic violence in the program with free Ring cameras had to sign an agreement which decreed that their involvement in the program is contingent upon them providing footage to the police; if they refuse, they are out of the program. In this regard, domestic violence survivors are not protected from future attacks, but placed under a synonymous position of criminality.

Surveillance in the Victorian consciousness — an already hyper visual culture– was a natural solution to anxieties surrounding crime; the utilization of Ring cameras is no different, except now every individual has the power to surveil, and thus, police and discipline.

Unfortunately, what happened in the Victorian era did not stay in the Victorian era, and here we are, employing the surveillance techniques in a treacherously evolved way.

Guo, Eileen. “How Amazon Ring Uses Domestic Violence to Market Doorbell Cameras.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/09/20/1035945/amazon-ring-domestic-violence/


Responses

  1. Ava, this is a very important connection showing that surveillance is still a prominent issue today. I think the objections to the doorbells brought up in this article are valid concerns – I’d hate to for anyone to have that kind of access to video footage of my life and in my opinion it seems like in certain instances it could dangerous to allow such a thing. However, I also see the side where the doorbell allows survivors to collect evidence – I think the surveillance issue is one that will play out over our lifetimes. It’s a problem that certainly requires much nuance.

  2. Hi Ava! I thought this was a really interesting read, I had not heard about ring cameras and I agree with Gaby, they seem like a controversial issue. On one hand, the camera seems like, as you said, a direct policing line into private life, like the panopticon for every home. And then still, I wonder what a solution would be for victims of domestic abuse, who can sometimes even doubt their own abuse, could better gather evidence to forge a path towards getting some help. Thanks for sharing!


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