Surveillance devices are becoming more ubiquitous. Do those who unknowingly appear in cam footage have rights—and who gets to decide?
PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION: JACQUI VANLIEW; GETTY IMAGES
IN A RESIDENTIAL neighborhood in South Minneapolis, “Karen,” an auto-tracking surveillance camera “artfully camouflaged” alongside other surveillance cameras nested in birdhouses, sees everything. Karen was installed after the social unrest following George Floyd’s murder in late spring 2020, and it has quickly become local fodder as footage is posted to NextDoor, Facebook, and the Instagram account @karenthecamera.
“In a nutshell,” describes the camera’s owner in an email interview, “[after summer 2020] nuisance crimes went up and police were not available to respond.” Content posted to @karenthecamera ranges from the mundane (a person running to catch a train) and lighthearted (dog in a raincoat) to creepy (a surprising number of people wandering around the property) and, technically, criminal (drug use, public urination, package theft). Most posts are accompanied by clever background music and a set of hashtags.
(The Instagram account was, of course, named after the newly archetypal Karen. “Karenthecamera is up in everybody’s business,” the Instagrammer told me, “the camera follows people as they walk by and it’s obvious.”)
Karenthecamera is not alone. In December 2019 alone, Amazon sold 400,000 Ring cameras, putting the total number of devices out there in the millions. Critics worry about police use of surveillance cam content or that the doorbells may unnecessarily increase our fear of crime.
And in the early days, there was some unease as posted footage heavily featured people of color doing absolutely nothing wrong. But popularity continues to soar as surveillance devices become ubiquitous parts of daily life—including on social media. Video from doorbell and home security cams have become a popular source of internet content on TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. Surveillance-style footage has become normalized across social media platforms; for instance, TikTok star Derek Lipp stylizes nearly all of his posts through the lens of a Ring camera, leading to his #ringseries videos that have accumulated over 691 million views. Package theft surveillance has become its own genre. Engineer Mark Rober’s enormously popular Glitter Bomb project hides cameras and other devices inside dummy packages, recording the thief’s surprise when glitter, fart spray, and sirens blast from the stolen box.
For anyone who has had a package stolen or dealt with property damage, these videos can be enormously satisfying. There are deep sociological roots to our desire to publicly shame those who steal from us or vandalize our property. The cams just streamline the process and attract a much larger audience. @Karenthecamera’s followers gleefully follow along, posting streams of emojis as the camera documents late night hijinks on the sidewalk in front of her house.
But the videos also reveal a more uncomfortable truth . Often, people caught on camera are suffering from mental health crises, addiction, or poverty. Our consumption of this content may be more about the pleasures of voyeurism and justifying our distaste for those already cast out of society—and they also raise the question of whether the people who appear on surveillance cams have privacy rights, when those rights erode, and who gets to decide.
BIG PICTURE, THERE’S no legal issue with posting surveillance cam content. Experts agree that it is generally legal to post video footage captured in a public space where the subject of the video lacks a reasonable expectation of privacy. (Things get a bit trickier with audio recordings, where states vary in consent rules, but, again, these rules often don’t apply when a person is in a public space, like on a sidewalk.) While a person’s front door area is legally considered “private” for Fourth Amendment purposes—meaning the police can’t snoop around without a warrant—a homeowner can surveil their own space. Accordingly, the decision to post content is almost entirely at the discretion of the camera’s owner, who also carries the burden of ensuring that their use of surveillance devices does not violate local privacy ordinances, according to Ring’s terms of service.
For its part, Ring warns users against using cam footage in a manner that is “harmful, fraudulent, deceptive, threatening, harassing, defamatory, obscene, or otherwise objectionable.” The company’s community guidelines for its companion Neighbors app allows posts showing “individual behavior” as long as the subject of the cam footage has committed a crime, handled property without authorization, or trespassed—and as long as the trespassing occurred in an “unusual location” or late at night.
As the cameras have continued to soar in popularity, along with the content they produce, our expectation of privacy at a person’s doorstep has continued to decline. And because we lack a clear, definite constitutional right to privacy, privacy rights in the US are often a reflection of cultural sentiments around who is deserving of such rights. If a person appears suspicious to a camera owner, those rights often evaporate.
WHEN SURVEILLANCE FOOTAGE is shared online, a few common sentiments are used for justification: First, your privacy rights are at the mercy of the camera’s owner. Second, if you don’t want your behavior to be made public, don’t do something the rest of us deplore. Sometimes this is a truly criminal act. Other times, it’s for things we used to consider a mere nuisance, or didn’t even know about at all.
We’ve also become comfortable with a pretty broad definition of which criminal acts deserve to be publicly shared when it comes to surveillance footage. For instance, @karenthecamera recently posted a video of three young people smoking crack, huddled against a nearby wooden fence. A few user comments made oblique reference to conspiracy theories about the Biden administration, while others posted emojis of dismay at the seemingly blasé drug activity happening in a public, residential space. Several other videos feature people, likely unhoused, shuffling by with shopping carts, often talking to themselves. It’s true that loitering and vagrancy have been criminalized in most jurisdictions, and while possessing crack cocaine is, of course, illegal, the long-standing police rationale for posting the identity of a person suspected of a crime is typically for locating a fugitive or identifying a dangerous person. The ease of sharing surveillance footage has blurred the boundaries between criminal and nuisance to include any behavior we don’t want in our backyard or doorstep.
The value judgments around curating surveillance cam footage, in some ways, illustrates broader tensions of our current moment. As fear of crime rises again in a post-quarantine world, people are frustrated by their perceived risk of becoming a victim. In the wake of broad public critiques of policing, faith in that institution has declined as well. Even as public support for broken-window policing declined, nuisance crimes, loitering, public intoxication, and petty theft are featured heavily in the surveillance footage shared across social platforms. While the public may be less comfortable with policing these behaviors through the state, we’ve become more comfortable policing them ourselves through the power of digital public shaming.
But this is a slippery slope; normalizing surveillance for some groups can lead to the normalization of surveillance for everyone. In their seminal 1890 piece on privacy in an American context, justices Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis write about how “whispers in the closet” are transformed into shouting from rooftops as communication technologies advance. They focused on the right to control information about oneself, a practice that quickly slips from our grasp in an age where walking past a person’s home implies consent to be recorded and digitally distributed.
A lot of institutional interests also erode a right to privacy in this context; the big beneficiaries of diminished privacy rights for people under doorbell surveillance are the media, police departments, and security cam companies. Police departments’ use of Ring footage has been hotly contested, and for now it relies mostly on the consent of the person who owns the camera—not the person in the video. Local newsrooms, strapped for cash, can repost voluntarily submitted security cam footage without having to spend resources or make claims of accuracy. All footage made public is an implicit advertisement for the company that created and sold the camera in the first place.
BUT SHOULD A person who unknowingly appears in surveillance footage have privacy rights? Outside the US, some are saying yes. In the UK, a court recently upheld a fine levied against a Ring user for violating their neighbor’s privacy because the camera’s scope included parts of the neighbor’s house and garden. The judge reasoned that because “personal data may be captured from people who are not even aware that the device is there,” the device violated UK data privacy laws.
It’s unlikely for such a decision to come to light in America. First, we lack the broader personal data protections that exist in the UK and EU. Second, we lack a legal solid foundation to make a claim for our own privacy if someone posts a video of us. In fact, most laws work against the subject of the cam footage. The website that hosts user-generated content is legally protected from liability under Section 230. The owner of the surveillance footage technically owns the copyright. If the video is posted just for information or laughs (and not for financial gain), you can’t leverage your right to publicity. Suing the owner of the camera would be both expensive and likely futile, unless you could somehow prove they intentionally set out to cause you emotional distress or that you were defamed and suffered some sort of loss. And finally, we’ve framed privacy as a right only for those who do not interfere with our own comfort, rather than as a value to be equally distributed across society.
If it’s not feasible to leverage privacy rights in this context, then perhaps we are stuck waiting for norms around ubiquitous private surveillance to change. In a recent post, @karenthecamera shared footage of a grumpy, older white woman taking a photo of the security cam with her cell phone. The video was captioned “I want to talk to the manager about this CAMERA!!!” and the post remarked, “When one Karen spots another Karen.”
In the end, we tend to hold competing sets of privacy rights all at once. No privacy for both the criminals and the Karens of the world, but we’d probably want it for ourselves. We want an unfettered right to surveil and are fearful of what’s happening outside our door, yet remain wary at the erosion of privacy in general and want the right to be, as Warren and Brandeis described it, “left alone.” Perhaps a good place to start is to encourage others to keep their cam footage private. @karenthecamera has opted out of a local program that alerts police to the existence of cameras in the event they would benefit from any footage. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t share my footage if asked,” explained the Instagrammer, “I just view this as a slippery slope that could lead to some very bad outcomes. The ways to abuse this footage is endless.”