Ring video doorbell owned by Amazon stock photo from BrandonKleinVideo/Shutterstock.

The Amazon Ring video doorbell has become increasing popular in many neighborhoods, including where I live in Montgomery County. Everyone wants to be safe, but are Ring and similar services just trying to make us more paranoid for a profit?

This is an important question to ask if we care about building inclusive communities and getting our neighbors to support more people and housing near them. I’ve been seeing the Ring doorbell advertised a lot lately on Nextdoor, which was founded in 2011 initially as a social media platform allowing neighbors to communicate with one another.

Nextdoor and home security monitors seem to be a natural pairing. Although a lot of posts on the platform have to do with selling dining tables and advertising nanny shares and yard services, there’s also usually a steady stream of gossip about petty thefts and suspicious pedestrians and unknown vehicles. Nextdoor’s motto, “when neighbors start talking, good things happen,” is best captured in its full glory and irony in the Twitter account @bestofnextdoor, (which is not affiliated with the company).

A sponsored Ring story on Next Door

Recently, I noticed some individuals on my neighborhood listserv advertising that the Ring doorbell has a new associated app called Ring Neighbors that provides crime reports of the area. You can view suspicious activity reported by your neighbors, and post your own experiences. You don’t even have to have the Ring doorbell to participate.

Screenshot from Ring Neighbors in the Silver Spring area.

Everyone wants to be safe, and crime does happen, even in the most bucolic of suburbs. Even if you live in a gated community, if you can get out of your neighborhood (by car, transit, foot, bike), others can always get in.

Some real examples of Nextdoor posts in my area recently: a rainbow LGBTQ Pride flag was stolen from in front of a home, and someone else reported a car missing from my street.

I can’t really blame any of my neighbors, some of them older and living by themselves, for being concerned about the possibility of rising crime rates. However, Ring Neighbors and similar services, by relying heavily on self-reporting and mere suspicion, may be exaggerating the crime rate and feeding into a cycle of fear.

Screenshoot of Ring Neighbors.

I’ve noticed several examples of false alarms reported on neighborhood listservs and Nextdoor in the last few years. A board member of our civic association called the police on brown-skinned individuals who entered their neighbors’ home with cleaning supplies minutes after the young couple had left for work. They were house cleaners, and the homeowners were not pleased.

Recently I came across a discussion on Reddit discussing the high levels of spurious reports on Ring Neighbors.

Screenshot from Reddit.

And, as writer Caroline Haskin reported in this Vice story, brown and black folks are likely to be overrepresented in neighbor reports. Haskins interviewed Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community college, who also studies institutional tech policy. In the article Gilliard said that these types of platforms can “reinforce” racism:

“We know from a bunch of high profile incidents in the past, and even when people live in a particular neighborhood, often their white neighbors don’t identify them as neighbors or belonging in those space,” Gilliard said. “So there’s a way that blackness can be seen as foreign, even when you ‘belong.’ And those systems codify that in a way that makes me really uncomfortable.”

A recent story in The Atlantic, Joshua Benton, who is also Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, raises other concerns. Ring is hiring journalists to peddle local crime stories to its users, and the entire business model of Ring Neighbors and crime reporting in general relies on maintaining fear within a community.

People who use these apps, like those who watch crime segments on local TV news (or listen to rallies by our current president), are likely to believe that crime is going up and that their neighborhood is going downhill. This drives them to listen to more crime news, become more suspicious and scared, and buy more video monitoring or home security systems, which benefits the peddlers of this fear.

In fact, all crime—from stranger assault to kidnappings—have been going down overall in the United States. People you don’t know typically don’t wish you harm, and you are likely safer leaving your house this year than you were when you were growing up.

Property crime rates in the United States per 100,000 people beginning in 1960

Image by Bureau of Justice Statistics.

It’s true that DC has seen a spike of homicides over the last couple of years, up 38% in 2018 and 4% so far this year, the majority of them east of the Anacostia River. (There have been only eight in Montgomery County so far this year.)

However, 2018 data from the Metropolitan Police Department shows violent crimes overall in the District were down 7%, and property crimes like burglary also down 7% from the previous year.

What does it do to a community when many members believe that crime is going up and that strangers, especially strangers with darker skin, might wish them harm? Perhaps they are less likely to go for walks or runs around the neighborhood, or take public transit, and instead prefer to drive themselves or with people they already know. They may be less enthusiastic when a person of a different race or lower socioeconomic class moves near them.

Could fear of crime drive a siege mentality, leading to opposition to any new developments, including accessory apartments (aka ADUs or granny flats) or other small apartments in the neighborhood? I only have anecdotal evidence from our area, but I believe it’s plausible.

When I reported on the ADU public testimonies in Montgomery County earlier this year, I noticed that several of the opponents cited “safety” as one of the reasons to protect single family neighborhoods. When people talk about “neighborhood character,” they are often talking about crime.

It’s also plausible that if you think that people out there mean you harm, you may not want to see better sidewalks or bus routes because these bits of infrastructure make it more likely for outsiders to find their way to your home.

I don’t blame the people who live near me for being interested Ring and Nextdoor and Ring Neighbors; it’s natural to want to know about what’s going on in your area. However, those of us who want to convince our neighbors to support new homes and increased density and more inclusivity need to be aware that these online platforms are waging their own sort of propaganda wars, and we need be savvy that we also don’t fall into taking their rhetoric as valid.

Sanjida Rangwala grew up in Canada and lived in multiple places in the US before landing in Silver Spring with her husband and two cats. She thinks way too much about infrastructure, inclusivity, and why we live the way we do. In her entirely unrelated day job, Sanjida figures out where the genes go in the genomes.