How we spy on each other every day - Thorin Klosowski

A couple of years ago, my garage was broken into while I was in the house. I heard footsteps and ran out to find someone trying to steal a bike. Cue some yelling, and the would-be thief was quickly gone, but I was so anxious I ordered a security camera within an hour. Since then, the camera has picked up nothing more than my comings and goings, mail delivery and the occasional rat. I recently decided to take it down.

I briefly spoke about this over email with Elizabeth Joh, a University of California, Davis, School of Law professor, who reminded me: “You never just ‘buy’ a new surveillance device. You’ve adopted a worldview about privacy, anonymity and autonomy — whether by conscious choice or accident.”

Ms. Joh’s comment hit me hard. When I think about privacy, I think about the ways companies and governments spy on us, but I ignore the ways we spy on one another. We use security cameras to track who comes in and out of our homes, we set up doorbell-camera alerts for when packages arrive, we watch the nanny work and we ask family members to constantly share their locations with us. Technology has made it affordable and easy to create D.I.Y. security systems inside and outside of our homes. We buy these cameras and use this technology because we can. But now that we have this power, it’s our responsibility to use it wisely — and we’re not doing a very good job.

Let’s break down a few of the most common ways we accidentally invade one another’s privacy every day — and how we can stop it.

Outdoor security cameras for capturing criminals (with bonus eavesdropping on everyone else)

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a neighbor with this subject line: “Look for gun.” Attached was surveillance footage that was said to be of a shooter who had been involved in domestic violence and later ditched a gun in someone’s yard.

Nearly every house in my neighborhood is wired with outdoor security cameras, so I’m sure all of the neighbors opened their security apps to see if they caught anything interesting.

Outdoor cameras are generally legal as long as they don’t pick up audio. There’s no expectation of privacy when you’re on a public street (though it’s always worth looking up your local laws on a site like Justia). If a camera also picks up audio — which most do — the laws get complicated and vary by state. Generally, consent from at least one party being recorded is required.

Without audio, this footage tends to be innocuous and uncompromising. Audio, even when it’s recorded outdoors, creates all sorts of ethical problems, not to mention legal ones. You may pick up a conversation between friends just before they ring your doorbell, or a mail carrier talking on the phone. Many outdoor cameras have audio enabled by default. Disable it. I didn’t realize mine was on until I recorded a private conversation and discovered just how invasive it was.

But it also matters what you do with the footage you collect.

Neighborhood apps such as Nextdoor and Citizen offer ways for neighbors to chat about local crimes (often with a side of racism) and share footage about supposed perpetrators. Amazon’s Ring, another doorbell camera, uses its own app, Neighbors. You can upload footage directly from your Ring camera to the app, and that footage is accessible by other users, including local police departments. For years I assumed the surveillance culture would be spearheaded by the state, but instead we’re leading it ourselves.

If there’s a compromise that offers security but also protects everyone’s privacy, it’s being mindful of the placement of security cameras so that they don’t pick up everyday visitors or people on the street (which, for me, rules out doorbell cameras). It also means staying away from neighborhood apps and disabling the audio recording on cameras.

Scenario 2: Indoor cameras for watching the nanny (and everyone else it happens to catch)

When a nanny, Angella Foster, explored the topic of nanny cams, her conclusion was straightforward: It’s usually O.K. to record video — beneficial, even, since there’s evidence of what happened if something goes awry — but making everyone aware that there is recording goes a long way to building trust. After all, the purpose of the camera is to keep your children safe, not to catch the nanny doing something wrong.

Generally speaking, you can legally record video in your home, though not in areas like bedrooms or bathrooms, where a person expects privacy. The legal line is typically drawn at recording audio, just as it is with outdoor cameras.

Once guests step into your home, they have a higher expectation of privacy. Although you may not be legally required in your state to tell visitors they’re on camera, you really should. It’s a terrible feeling to find out you’ve been recorded, even if you weren’t doing anything interesting. Indoor cameras with audio can easily pick up private footage, like a friend who casually dunks on your choice of throw blanket, or a sibling who disciplines her children.

Whereas outdoor cameras are typically used only for security, indoor cameras aren’t as obviously beneficial. They certainly feel creepier.

As a former latchkey kid, I wonder whether my parents, if they’d had access to this technology, would have used it to keep an eye on me after school. (That probably would have proved unproductive, though, unless my dad found it useful to watch me spend hours playing Final Fantasy VI.) A better choice may be an outdoor camera, which can catch a child’s return home without the pervasive weirdness of keeping cameras in your house.

As for a nanny cam, tell your nanny it’s there and disable audio recording.

Scenario 3: Tracking the location of family members

We spend a lot of time worrying about how apps track our locations without our knowledge. Yet many of us proactively (and constantly) share our location with our families.

In most cases, you have to opt in. You enable location tracking on an iPhone or Android phone, set up a group with your family and watch everyone move around a map throughout the day. Used thoughtfully, these location-sharing services may have some benefits, like making “I’m running a few minutes late” messages pointless, or tracking a child’s movements on the way home from school.

There’s plenty of room for misunderstandings, though, like when you say you’re leaving the office only to decide to answer a few more emails, or when you’re going to a different grocery store, further away, to get some extra alone time. It’s worth discussing what you’d get from the tracking, and making sure everyone’s on the same page. I recently talked with my partner about it — I tend to disappear for long hours on bike rides, and she often hikes alone, but in both instances, the cellphone reception is so bad the tracking wouldn’t be reliable. We decided the benefits didn’t outweigh the potential consequences from unexplained movements.

For children under the age of 18, location tracking gets a little tricky. For one, teenagers are a resourceful bunch who tend to be allergic to invasions of privacy. They find a way around whatever you do, whether they disable tracking features or spoof their location. That’s never been more obvious than it was this summer, when Wired reported about teenagers who openly mocked the Life360 location-sharing app.

This is ultimately a trust issue. Having an open conversation with your child about enabling location tracking makes it more useful as a safety switch than as a chance to catch misconduct. As a kid, I’m sure I’d have been fine enabling location tracking when I went to concerts in the city, but I probably would have pushed back on the days when I was at work or school.

Is it ethical to monitor your children without their knowledge? Absolutely not. But if they’re truly at risk in some way, it’s a discussion and choice worth having. Don’t be surprised, though, if they outsmart whatever system you settle on.

There’s a larger ethical problem here that goes beyond these specific situations. The more we’re exposed to surveillance, the more comfortable we become with it. Every new device we purchase adds to the growing network of cameras and other tracking devices, slowly altering our worldview and rewiring our understanding of privacy.

For decades, the idea of putting cameras in and around your home applied mostly to people who could afford specialized systems and constant monitoring. GPS trackers were bulky, weird boxes, used only by private eyes or the N.S.A. in movies. Now the technology is affordable and easy to set up. And as customers, we’ve eaten it up.

The in me loves that we’re empowered to install our own security systems. Making security technology affordable feels like a step forward. But it worries me when the first things we do with this power is opt in to larger surveillance networks, bring the cameras into our own homes and constantly track the locations of our family members. This technology is fascinating and useful, but we have to be mindful of how we use it. It’s time to stop and question whether these systems really make us feel more secure. We have to think of the broader context outside of our own security, too, and whether we’re participating in larger trends that we’re ultimately uncomfortable with.


New York Times

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