Do people captured by Ring cameras have privacy rights?
For its part, Ring cautions users against using video footage in a “harmful, fraudulent, deceptive, threatening, harassing, defamatory, obscene, or otherwise objectionable” manner. Of the society Community Rules for its companion Neighbors app allows posts showing “individual behavior” as long as the subject of the camera footage has committed a crime, handled property without permission or been trespassed – and as long as the trespass occurred in an “unusual place” or late at night.
As the cameras have continued to grow in popularity, along with the content they produce, our expectations for privacy at a person’s doorstep have continued to drop. And because we lack a clear and defined constitutional right to privacy, privacy rights in the United States are often a reflection of cultural sentiments around who deserves such rights. If a person appears suspicious to the owner of a camera, these 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 owner. Second, if you don’t want your behavior publicized, don’t do something the rest of us deplore. It is sometimes a truly criminal act. Other times it’s for things that we considered a mere annoyance or didn’t even know about at all.
We have also become comfortable with a fairly broad definition of criminal acts worth sharing publicly when it comes to surveillance footage. For example, @karenthecamera recently posted a video of three youngsters smoking crack, huddled against a nearby wooden fence. A few user comments indirectly referred to conspiracy theories about the Biden administration, while others posted emojis of dismay at the seemingly jaded drug activity taking place in public and residential space. Several other videos feature people, probably homeless, walking around with shopping carts, often talking to themselves. It’s true that strolling and wandering have been criminalized in most jurisdictions, and while possession of crack cocaine is, of course, illegal, the longstanding justification for police to display the identity of a person suspected of a crime is generally to locate a fugitive or to identify a dangerous person. The ease of sharing surveillance footage has blurred the lines between criminal and nuisance to include any behavior we don’t want in our backyard or on our doorstep.
Value judgments around the preservation of surveillance camera footage, in some ways, illustrate broader tensions of our current moment. Like the fear of crime get up again in a post-quarantine world, people are frustrated with their perceived risk of becoming a victim. Following widespread public criticism of the police service, confidence in this institution declined as well. Even like public support for broken window policing, harmful crimes, vagrancy, public intoxication and petty theft feature heavily in surveillance footage shared on social platforms. While the public may be less comfortable controlling these behaviors through the state, we have become more comfortable controlling them ourselves through the power of digital public shaming.