Think about the last viral video you watched. Who was in it and what happened? Why was it funny?
Now consider the video from a less light-hearted perspective. Did the subjects of the video know they were being filmed? Did they give permission to have their image spread throughout social media?
These days, the answer is often no. Despite backlash from the subjects of some of these viral posts, the likelihood of being filmed in public is just another aspect of life in the internet age. Unwanted viral fame can be embarrassing and bring about unwanted attention. More sinister than potential humiliation is the egregious violations of individual privacy caused by the normalization of surveillance technology in everyday life.
The Amazon-owned Ring doorbell and home security system is one of the most common examples of how surveillance manifests itself as a constant and casual presence in modern life.
The main feature of the Ring system is its constantly running video feed that users can access through an app. The system has already gained criticism for enabling a TikTok trend derided as “exploitative” in which Amazon delivery drivers are given instructions to perform dances in front of Ring cameras. In July of this year, Amazon admitted to providing police departments with video footage captured by Ring cameras in 11 separate instances — without the users’ knowledge.
Although the company’s representatives denied releasing the footage to police in non-emergency situations, Amazon still received harsh criticism from activists and politicians for this alleged violation of its customers’ privacy. Knowing that police have identified and arrested protesters based on the clothes they wore in video footage posted online, concerns over the potential consequences of the ubiquitous Ring cameras are valid.
Only a few months after Ring’s relationship with police was revealed, Amazon is already attempting to rehabilitate the system’s image with the upcoming television series “Ring Nation.” The program will feature comedian Wanda Sykes presenting funny videos unknowingly captured by Ring cameras, in a similar style to the smash hit “America’s Funniest Home Videos’ (AFV). The difference between the two shows is subtle but indicative of the cultural shift in America since the peak of AFVs popularity: the video content featured in one program was submitted when a video on a camera or mobile device took an unexpected turn, while the content featured in the other is selected from surveillance reel that subjects, if unidentifiable, sometimes go completely unaware of.
“Ring Nation” garnered intense backlash from civil liberties and personal privacy advocates and was derided by reviewers as “ominous”. Even before the program’s slated release on Sept. 26, it appears the shiny veneer of “Ring Nation” is failing to distract the public from the dystopian reality at the product’’s core.
Despite the bleak implications of the production of a show like “Ring Nation,” the adverse reactions of viewers is ultimately a good sign. If the public can see that “Ring Nation” is more sinister than funny, they will be equipped to notice other violations of privacy that they encounter in everyday life, including the possibility that the now-Amazon-owned Roomba model of smart vacuum cleaners may be selling maps of users’ houses to police to better facilitate raids, or the non-consensual sale of users’ genetic data by companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com.
After all, there’s a reason these companies often keep their more contentious policies hidden in fine print. If the “Ring Nation” debacle has any silver lining, it is that it may inspire individuals to better protect themselves from intrusions into their civil liberties by private and government entities alike.
Kris Berg is a senior majoring in English literature and print journalism. They are originally from Westchester, N.Y. and aspire to live and work in New York City after graduation.
Correction: An earlier version of this story published on Oct. 5 incorrectly described content included in “Ring Nation” as “recorded by a sprawling and anonymous corporation without the subject’s knowledge.” This statement was revised on Oct. 6.