Amazon has repackaged surveillance capitalism as reality TV

Smile! You're on Candid Doorbell – and the joke's on us all

Column It's hard to understand why anyone expressed surprise when Amazon's VP of public policy, Brian Huseman, recently admitted sharing data with police.

In case you missed it, Huseman told US senator Edward Markey that although Amazon tells owners of its Ring doorbell-cum-televisual-surveillance-system that footage from their highly-connected internet cameras will not be shared with the authorities without their explicit permission. You can guess the rest: Amazon sometimes does share video without permission.

You can almost imagine the rictus smile that accompanied this uncomfortable acknowledgement that Amazon's assurance of absolute privacy meant nothing at all. In that moment, every Ring doorbell – there are millions of them, around the world – was revealed as a telescreen sending signals back to Big Brother.

Or at least, that's the moment it became obvious. Anyone who truly believed that wiring their doorbell into the largest provider of cloud infrastructure on Earth wouldn't end this way hasn't been looking at how we are all being watched. A woman fired from her job because she stepped away from the computer to make herself lunch. Students taking exams under the watchful eye of a webcam. And so on.

Our pandemic-panicked rush into remote work led directly to a pervasive adoption of video meetings, live streams, and online conferences. All of that felt like a relief from the old way of working – a change as good as a holiday – until it started to become clear that this holiday home looks a good deal like Bentham's Panopticon: where the prisoners can't see one another, but all can be seen by the ever-watchful guard.

Perhaps it's not all bad? A world of pervasive observation by invisible authorities with the power to judge, sentence and enforce their verdicts without appeal or even making themselves visible to the accused – maybe that's all just a source of endless comedy?

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That's clearly what Amazon believes. It recently announced the launch of its MGM-branded series, "Ring Nation" – a light-hearted look at some of the funniest footage gathered by Amazon's vast network of spy eyes. According to Hollywood insider website Deadline, "The series will feature clips such as neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals."

This announcement – made just a few weeks after Amazon's admission of Ring footage being given to legal authorities without a warrant – simultaneously reads as both a failure to read the room, and the ultimate troll. "See what we've done here? We've turned Nineteen Eighty-Four's Room 101 into The Benny Hill Show!"

In this case I feel sure that Amazon has correctly sought the legal permissions of the individuals both captured and capturing this 'found' footage. Civil liberties be damned – but copyright must never be violated!

All of this points to an immediate need for strong legal protections to ring-fence any footage from any sensor anywhere, so that the data stream from that sensor can only be used in ways and purposes determined by its owner. Under no circumstances should a sensor be able to "go rogue" and give away anything about its owner beyond what that owner would willingly – and affirmatively – reveal. Otherwise we will be mired in a world where our thoughts and actions are so continuously up for examination that we will self-censor ourselves into complete acquiescence to any project proposed by any power greater than ourselves.

The thin end of that wedge looks like a light-hearted TV series. But if we don't ring-fence Amazon's Ring immediately, very soon we may be continuously performing for some power that we cannot see. This latest stage of surveillance capitalism feels totalitarian – yet looks like entertainment. ®

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