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A Black woman invented home security systems. Big Tech gave them racial bias

Marie Van Brittan Brown Ring Composite
Taylor Frint/Digital Trends

If you own and use various smart home security products including cameras, alarm systems, or smart locks, you have Marie Van Brittan Brown to thank for all of it.

Brown was a nurse who lived in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, and she began the home security revolution that directly led to the current ecosystem filled with home security products from Ring, Nest, August, Arlo, Wyze, and others.

As stories of invention usually do, this one started with a desire: Brown wanted to feel safer. As a nurse, she often worked late, and her husband, Albert, was an electrician who worked odd hours, leaving Marie home alone at night in a dangerous neighborhood. So, in 1966, she set out to design a home security system.

Marie Van Brittan Brow Home Security System
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Brown designed a pretty amazing system, with the help of her husband, that did an impressive job of showing the way of the future for home security. Her system included a closed-circuit TV (CCTV) system connected to monitors in the house. The camera at the door was on a pulley so it could easily slide between four different peepholes to adjust to the height of the person at the door. There was also a two-way microphone, so she could communicate with the person at the door, and an emergency button that would send an alarm to security personnel or the police. And, to top it all off, Brown included a remote so she could unlock the door from a distance.

Brown received a patent (US 3482037A) for her home security system in 1969. That patent has gone on to be cited by 35 other patents, including a patent granted in 2014 (US 9584775B2) for a “wireless entrance communication device” called Doorbot, now known as Ring.

A troubling turn

Of course, while it’s fun to stroll down memory lane to see where our fun gadgets got their start, it’s hard to ignore that the invention of a Black woman who wanted to feel safe is now being used in troubling ways. Over the past year, it has been impossible to ignore the Black Lives Matter movement, which has shined a light on systemic racism in America. Cameras of all kinds have been a big part of both highlighting the movement itself and showing why the movement is still needed. Police brutality and violence against Black people and people of color has always been a part of America, but it is far more visible now that everyone has cameras in their pockets.

Unfortunately, we’re learning that power cuts both ways. Just as concerned citizens can record a video of police brutality, a citizen may also be “concerned” about “strangers,” “thugs,” “gang members,” or whatever other dog-whistle phrasing might be used. While it is surely possible for those sorts of videos to be sent to law enforcement, home smart security cameras act as a speed dial, especially when paired with social networks.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Keep in mind that the biggest barrier to buying home security products is the cost and lower income areas correlate to higher crime rates, so these systems are more likely to be in higher-income neighborhoods where there is generally less crime anyway. These neighborhoods also tend to be more white, and we have consistently seen what happens when white people perceive a threat: They call the police. The reason the name Karen has become a meme is because there has been a stream of stories in which white people think it is OK to call the police because they “feel” unsafe without cause or that something is wrong. This perception of threats is a big problem in a number of ways, but it’s also simply untrue. Pew Research pointed out that while violent and property crimes have dropped consistently since the 1990s, regardless of data source, people perceive that crime is on the rise.

Still, any way to reduce the perception of a threat should be cause for pause at the very least, because when you combine the much higher likelihood of a user-submitted report targeting people of color with the known disproportionately violent response by police in cases involving Black people and people of color, it’s a story that generally doesn’t end well.

And yet, this is the promise of a Ring security camera: Security through surveillance combined with a social feed in the form of Ring’s companion social network, “Neighbors.”

A speed dial to law enforcement…

For better or worse, Ring is the standard example when talking about the intersection of surveillance, social media bubbles, and issues with policing in America. There are plenty of other smart security camera companies around, and they all comply with legal requests for video footage recorded by user cameras. Nest even has an easily found transparency report about exactly this practice. Similarly, there are other hyperlocal social networks — like Citizen and Nextdoor.

What makes Ring special in this space is a history of partnering with police departments (as of January 2021, Ring had partnered with more than 2,000 police and fire departments), and a public social feed in the Neighbors app where users can post possible crimes, lost pets, or even acts of kindness in a hyperlocal area.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Police departments can easily follow these posts, of course, or police can actually request video from Ring users. This option has been somewhat misunderstood broadly, but should still be considered for potential misuse. Like other companies, Ring will only provide video to police departments to comply with legal orders and, even then, Ring has introduced end-to-end encryption as an option, which means police departments have to go directly to users to obtain those videos. Unique to Ring is a system by which “public safety agencies may submit a video request through Neighbors asking their community to assist an investigation by voluntarily sharing videos.” This means law enforcement can get around the onerous process of obtaining warrants to access video and simply reach out to the public for help.

To be fair, Ring seems acutely aware of the potential issues with Neighbors, so the company actively moderates the network. When police are submitting video requests, they are limited in scope of location and time and must include case numbers and a point of contact. More friction has been introduced when someone posts a message with problematic keywords. Posts can be taken down and the offending user will receive an email warning. Troublesome post tags have been removed from the app as well. At first, the post labels in Neighbors were: Crime, Safety, Suspicious, Stranger, or Lost Pet, but since then the Suspicious and Stranger options were removed and replaced with Unexpected Activity, Neighborly Moment (a kind act), and I’m not sure. Similarly, Nextdoor removed an option to “forward to police” because of the potential for racial profiling and misuse.

… but with social amplification of racism

Those of you who have spent even a short time on similar networks like Citizen or Nextdoor (or any social network for that matter) might already see the problem here: Strong moderation or not, it’s very difficult to rid a social network of racism. Add in the fact that reports about “suspicious” persons disproportionately affect people of color, as well as the addition of security camera footage to Ring’s Neighbors app, and the likelihood of issues erupting becomes quite stark.

Nextdoor has had near-constant reports of racial bias and outright bigotry on its network throughout its existence, because any sufficiently large social network inevitably leads to hateful people finding cohorts. Early reporting on Neighbors showed similar troubles. Between December 2018 and February 2019, Vice’s Motherboard reviewed more than 100 user-submitted posts on Neighbors and found “the majority of people reported as ‘suspicious’ were people of color.” Other similar studies of posts on Neighbors, Nextdoor, and Citizen all found the majority of posts about supposedly suspicious people were referring to people of color, and that’s not even getting into outright racist language being used liberally, like describing Black men walking up stairs as “gang members.”

Even if we take to heart the changes Ring has made and the company’s apparent eagerness to be a safe space, racists can be clever and come up with unique phrasing to avoid moderation, and that just leaves the core of Ring cameras and the Neighbors app: A public feed that can be monitored by police and a system for law enforcement to directly access a user base that might be a bit more eager to help out, given that they’ve joined the Neighbors app and may also own a Ring device. It’s easy to see why proponents like this sort of system, but it’s just as easy to see why organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have come out against Ring specifically. It’s a system rife for misuse where Ring is likely going to be fighting a losing battle forever.

One last point to keep in mind is that more often than not, a product that is promising safety and security is either a) only offering the illusion of safety, and/or b) is promoting safety and security through stoking internal fears. We just spent four years hearing the president of the United States promoting the idea of security through persecuting “outsiders” and “others” (and generally anyone not white). Ring itself may not be doing that, but that feeling is at the core of issues found on social networks. Apps like Nextdoor and Neighbors aren’t the cause of racism, but especially in the case of Neighbors and Ring, they can act as a conduit between a racist feeling and the police.

This is a very dangerous connection and made worse by reporting questioning the effectiveness around Ring’s core mission: Making neighborhoods safer. In early 2020, NBC News checked in with 40 police departments around the country and found 13 “had made zero arrests as a result of Ring footage.” As noted earlier, smart security systems are more often found in wealthier neighborhoods where crime is already pretty low anyway, but it certainly stands in stark contrast to reports that police used Ring cameras as part of surveillance against the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

One can only wonder what a Black nurse from Queens might think of where her invention is now. How far the technology has advanced, and how it serves to exacerbate and encourage the systemic racism so many people of her time fought to end during the Civil Rights Movement.

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