Mail man

Ring Video Doorbell: privacy invasion delivered to your doorstep

12 minutes to read
Paper
Ruben den Boer
16/11/2022

Crazy ex-girlfriends, drunk kids, and cursing mailmen: these are just a few examples of the many subjects that were captured by Ring Video Doorbells and uploaded to TikTok in recent years. These doorbells are meant to ensure the privacy and security of their owners. But they do so at the cost of the privacy of the person on the doorstep. Which privacy issues do video doorbells raise for these individuals? In this article, I hope to answer that question through a discourse analysis of a set of emblematic Ring Video Doorbell videos posted on TikTok.

More specifically, I will analyze two TikTok videos through the lens of Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical theory of the presentation of self. In doing so, I hope to foster a better understanding of the impact video doorbells can have on our ability to exert access control in order to protect our privacy, i.e., “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others”, as Westin (1967) describes it.

The Ring Video Doorbell and privacy

Ring Video Doorbells (RVD) are camera-equipped doorbells that give the owner the opportunity to watch whatever is happening on their doorstep live or at a later moment. The company behind the Ring Video Doorbell was acquired by Amazon in 2018 (Gibbs, 2018), and has sold the RVD to millions of people in 30 countries worldwide (Business Wire, 2021, 2022). There are other producers of video doorbells, but Ring is the obvious market leader (Business Wire, 2022). That is why it deserves our focus. 

Ring encourages its users to record, save and share videos captured by their doorbells

RVDs are promoted as providing safety, convenience and peace of mind to the owner. On top of that, Ring claims to prioritize privacy (Ring Europe, n.d.). This claim is challenged, however, by a series of privacy scandals. Besides grounded general concerns about data leaks and the privacy of neighbors (Mozilla Foundation, 2021), one of the main privacy concerns is that Amazon partners with cities and law enforcement agencies, creating a mass surveillance network that can be accessed by state actors without the knowledge or consent of the RVD owners (Egger, 2020), leading to increased racial profiling (Agnihotri & Bhattacharya, 2021), among other things.     

Despite these privacy concerns, Ring encourages its users to record, save and share videos captured by their doorbells, e.g. through video tutorials (Ring, 2021), without any explicit regard for the privacy of the subjects being filmed. This fact can be situated within the wider context of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019), which claims human experience as raw material for translation into behavioral data which can be sold at a profit. Though Zuboff herself doubts if Amazon could be seen as a case study for surveillance capitalism (Zuboff et al., 2019), recent articles do point out Amazon's surveillance-capitalistic tendencies, especially through products and services that serve as extensions of the company's core business.

For example, Neville (2020) performed a discourse analysis of Amazon's End User Agreements, finding "evidence in support of growing privacy and surveillance concerns produced by Amazon’s eavesmining platform that are obfuscated by the illegibility of the documents." Amazon uses Alexa to mine auditory data and makes their legal documents hard to understand in an attempt to sweep this under the rug. In another study, Haberman (2021) examined Amazon's 'smart stores' called Amazon Go. Through an investigation of a range of data, e.g. promotional videos and interviews with designers, Haberman shows the concept of convenience "is central to Amazon's abilities to exploit the behavioral surplus of its customers and legitimate new forms of capital accumulation and extraction" (Haberman, 2021). As we will see below, Ring's encouragement to record and share RVD videos results in numerous issues regarding the privacy of the filmed subjects, similar to the issues raised by Neville and Haberman. 

Societies of control and presentations of the self

The mass surveillance (capitalistic) network put up by Amazon’s video doorbells is an emblematic example of what Deleuze (1992) calls ‘the societies of control’. In a society of control, we are no longer bound to closed environments in which we are disciplined through laws. Instead, we are constantly flowing through a structure of entangled systems in which we are controlled through surveillance (Deleuze, 1992). Matthiessen (1997) argues that this surveillance is not just a case of Foucault’s panopticism – where the few view the many – but that it is also a case of synopticism – where the many view the few. In simpler terms: it is not just ‘Big Brother’ watching us, it is us watching us. 

Front- and backstage

These synoptic societies of control raise several privacy issues on the societal level. But they also impact our privacy on a personal level. To understand how we will follow Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical theory of the presentation of self. In particular, the distinction he makes between the front- and backstage. Just like actors in a theater, we put on a performance whenever we know the audience is watching us on the frontstage, e.g. during social interaction. This performance can be put up both consciously and unconsciously. During this performance, we present a certain identity to the audience, e.g. the identity of a mailman, fundraiser, or Jehovah’s witness. 

Without privacy, our performance and identity can fall apart

The backstage, on the other hand, is the region where we prepare our performance in privacy. Goffman argues that access to this region needs to be controlled in order to prevent the audience from seeing backstage. Without privacy, our performance and identity can fall apart, just like a peek behind the curtains can destroy the ‘magic’ of a theatrical performance (Goffman, 1959). Similarly, Westin (1967) argues that this privacy helps us to “adjust emotionally to day-to-day interpersonal interactions” (Margulis, 2011). In the case of mailmen, fundraisers, and Jehovah’s witnesses, the doorstep is part of their backstage. Here, they make the final preparations for their performances that will start once the door opens.

Exhibition

In 2010, Hogan elaborated on Goffman’s theory, arguing that, in the age of social media, life is not just a performance, it is an exhibition. Our performances are captured in data, which Hogan calls ‘artifacts’. These artifacts are submitted to curators - the algorithms of social media platforms. These curators use the artifacts to compose unique exhibitions (timelines, For You pages) for particular audiences (Hogan, 2010). The fact that RVDs can be used to capture and share artifacts of the backstage raises privacy issues that demand further investigation. 

Discourse analysis 

In order to analyze the possible implications of the Ring Video Doorbell on personal privacy in a synoptic society of control, two TikTok videos will be scrutinized: “USPS delivery” (Kim’s Kitchen Affair [@kimskitchenaffair], 2021) and “De postbode had zijn dag niet 🤣😅” (Dutch.Vids [@dutch.vids], 2022). Both videos depict a mailman on the job. The videos were selected using the search queries “Ring Doorbell” and “Ring Deurbel” in the search function of TikTok on 30 May 2022. The collected data is exemplary of two possible scenarios: the subject either is/seems aware or is/seems not aware of the fact that they are being filmed.

I advise you to watch the videos before proceeding. 

In what follows, the research data is subjected to discourse analysis (Blommaert, 2005). This means we'll be looking at language-in-action. Rather than examining the exact semantic and lexical properties of this language-in-action, we emphatically take into account the context, intertextuality, participants, and actions that make up the discourse. Since TikToks are inherently highly multimodal, special attention will be paid to multimodality, which allows us to take into account these multiple modes and how they interact with each other. Finally, looking at our data through the lens of indexicality allows us to derive social meaning from the captured footage and analyze possible implications regarding the privacy of the subjects through the lens of Goffman’s and Hogan’s views on presentations of self.  

Possible implications of the Ring Video Doorbell 

Using the methods described above, the data was closely examined by looking at the different modes, e.g. videos, hashtags, texts, utterances, and body language, and how these interact. From this multimodal examination, indexicality was used to distill social meaning from the semiotic resources put to use in these TikToks. The analysis of the data brought forth three possible implications for the privacy of the subjects being filmed from the perspective of Goffman's front/backstage theory: 1) the frontstage is expanded; 2) the audience intrudes the backstage; 3) the outsiders join the audience. I expand on this in the following sections.

The frontstage is expanded

The first video depicts a scenario where the subject is/seems aware of the fact they are being filmed. This becomes clear from the discourse within the video. Utterances like “I’m gonna make sure y’all get all y’all bills on time” and “thank you” show that the mailman is engaging in communication with the RVD owner. His awareness of the RVD is further emphasized by his body language. He turns to the camera and looks into the lens during several utterances. 

Screenshots of the TikTok video 'USPS Delivery' (@kimskitchenaffair, 2021)

The fact that the mailman in this scenario is aware of the fact that he is being filmed, results in an expanded frontstage. According to Goffman, the front region can increase (Goffman, 1959 p. 239), meaning performers get less private space to prepare for their performances and need to keep up their performances and presented identities/images in a larger area. In the first video, we see that the mailman has put on the character of a nice, kind mailman when he walks into view. He acts uplifted, polite, and professional. This indexes his awareness that he is being filmed and that the performance has already started, even though the audience is nowhere to be seen. 

An expanded frontstage does not prohibit the subject from exerting access control per se (Westin, 1967). But it does require them to adjust when, how, and to what extent they give or restrict access to information because the physical area where people might attain access to that information has expanded. 

The audience intrudes the backstage

In the second video, it seems very likely that the subject is not aware of the fact that he is being filmed, since he behaves in a way you would not expect from a professional mailman. He walks into view cursing about other homeowners that did not open the door to accept their mail, and he overtly displays anger and frustration through his body language and facial expressions.

Screenshots of the TikTok video 'De postbode had zijn dag niet 🤣😅' (@dutch.vids, 2022)

This behavior and language index that the performer still feels like he is in a backstage region. He does not have to put on his character of mailman yet. Instead, this performance is “knowingly contradicted” (Goffman, 1959 p. 114), because “the back region [is] the place where the performer can reliably expect that no member of the audience will intrude” (Goffman, 1959 p. 116). But, via the Ring Video Doorbell, the audience does intrude. The RVD owner gets a peek backstage. This can discredit, disrupt or make useless the impression/image that the mailman would have fostered with his performance if the door would have been opened (Goffman, 1959 p. 141). The audience can no longer believe this is a professional mailman because they have now seen his “naked, unsocialized look”, as Goffman calls it (1959, p. 228). 

Once the audience intrudes the backstage, access control (Westin, 1967) becomes futile, since the borders that are implicitly or explicitly set by the subject regarding access to their information are no longer respected.

The outsiders join the audience

Of course, video doorbells have been around for a while. But the RVD is different. The RVD does not only capture social interaction, it records it. And RVD owners are encouraged to share these recordings via social media. The ease and affordability of sharing RVD recordings often turn the captured performances into artifacts (Hogan, 2010) which can be put into an exhibition for possibly millions of people worldwide to see. In doing so, outsiders – individuals who were never meant to be part of the interaction – join the audience.

The performer can no longer be certain of who his audience is

This complicates the role of the performer even further. Hogan (2010) argues artifacts are inherently interpreted and judged in relation to other artifacts (e.g. the American mailman is a better mailman than the Dutch mailman). Additionally, Hogan (2010) argues that artifacts are subject to context collapse (Marwick & boyd, 2010): the performer can no longer be certain of who his audience is. This makes the exertion of access control an impossible task since access control is inherently dependent on the audience to whom access is or is not granted (Westin, 1967). 

In the data, we can see that the American mailman puts on a performance for the RVD owner, but this performance has also been seen by over 753.400 TikTok users. And we see that it is not just the RVD owner that intrudes the backstage of the Dutch mailman, over 16.100 TikTok users intruded the backstage as well. These are thousands of new, unknown, and unintended audience members that get the chance to interpret and judge the subjects being filmed without regard to the question if these subjects have given their consent for their performances to be put on display or not. 

Peer surveillance

According to Goffman (1959), we need control over our backstage in order to keep it private from the audience and outsiders. This form of access control (Westin, 1967) faces great pressure, however, in a synoptic society of control where we are under constant surveillance. Deleuze (1992) already attributed the shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control to technological advancements. The current analysis shows how a complex of such technological advancements – HD doorbell cameras, smartphones, the Internet of Things, TikTok, etc. – is well on its way to incorporating a new area into the synoptic society of control: the doorstep. 

We run the risk to be filmed when we stand in front of someone’s door, even if we do not give our consent to be filmed. This forces us to reduce our backstage regions, which leaves us even fewer private spaces where we can be our own naked, unsocialized selves. In the case of the Ring Video Doorbell, this invasion of privacy can not only be attributed to Big Brother-esque corporations that thrive on surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019) like Amazon. The current analysis shows that we are also under possible surveillance from our peers whenever we ring their doorbells. And that we ourselves violate the privacy of our peers by limiting their ability to exert access control whenever we invade, record, and share what they might feel to be their backstage area.

This acknowledgment at the very least invites self-reflection and self-critique. As Dave Eggers, author of the techno-dystopian novel ‘The Circle’, puts it: “How can we fight invasions of privacy, when we constantly invade the privacy of each other?” (as cited in Romeijn & Rozinga, 2022). 

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