“MY PACKAGE THIEF HAS BEEN ARRESTED!!!,” reads a post on Neighbors, a “neighborhood watch” social network run by Ring, which is a home security systems company owned by Amazon.
The post shows two side-by-side images: one is of a man as captured on a home security camera, and the other is of someone who appears to be the same man, as photographed in a mugshot.
“This man stolen my packages along with my neighbors packages on 1/14/19 and I’m happy to report that he was arrested on 2/3/19 by the NYPD,” the post caption reads. The comments universally congratulate the person who posted the images.
Neighbors defines itself as a “new neighborhood watch,” according to its website. But on a more practical level, Neighbors is like NextDoor, a social platform for local communities, if the posts on NextDoor were only reports of crime or “suspicious activity.” NextDoor has faced long-standing issues of racism on its platform, and Ring faces the same issue. Each Neighbors post has one of the following labels: Crime, Safety, Suspicious, Stranger, or Lost Pet. Ring captures footage that can help leads to arrests when that footage is shared with police, like in the case described above.
Neighbors is not just a social media app: it’s a service that’s meant to be used with Ring security cameras, a Wi-Fi-powered home security company that was acquired by Amazon last February in a $1 billion deal. Neighbors was launched in May 2018, three months after the acquisition. If you have Ring security cameras, you can upload video content straight from your security camera to Neighbors. And if you download Neighbors and invite a friend to join the app, both you and your friend get $10 off Ring security products—which include doorbell video cameras, floodlight video cameras, and in-home security cameras.
Beyond creating a “new neighborhood watch,” Amazon and Ring are normalizing the use of video surveillance and pitting neighbors against each other. Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community College who studies institutional tech policy, told Motherboard in a phone call that such a “crime and safety” focused platforms can actively reinforces racism.
“We know from a bunch of high profile incidents in the past, and even when people live in a particular neighborhood, often their white neighbors don’t identify them as neighbors or belonging in those space,” Gilliard said. “So there’s a way that blackness can be seen as foreign, even when you ‘belong.’ And those systems codify that in a way that makes me really uncomfortable.”
In Amazon’s version of a “new neighborhood watch,” petty crimes are policed heavily, and racism is common. Video posts on Neighbors disproportionately depict people of color, and descriptions often use racist language or make racist assumptions about the people shown. In many ways, the Neighbors/Ring ecosystem is like a virtual gated community: people can opt themselves in by downloading the Neighbors app, and with a Ring camera, users can frame neighbors as a threat.
Motherboard individually reviewed more than 100 user-submitted posts in the Neighbors app between December 6 and February 5, and the majority of people reported as “suspicious” were people of color. Motherboard placed the “home” address at the VICE offices in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and kept the default 5-mile neighborhood radius, meaning the neighborhood encompassed all of lower Manhattan, most of Brooklyn, and parts of Queens and Hoboken.