Many trace the origin of widespread neighborhood watch programs to the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. Genovese was on her way home from work when Walter Mosely stabbed her in the back and dragged her inside, where he attempted to rape her. Eventually, she bled to death. Two weeks later, the New York Times reported that 37 of Genovese’s neighbors had watched the attack and failed to call the police.
The reported callousness of Genovese’s neighbors ignited fury across the country, and officials lamented everyone’s apparent disinterest in the safety of their neighbors. Academics coined the term “bystander apathy.”
Of course, the details regarding the bystanders to Kitty Genovese’s death turned out to be mostly inaccurate. The Times itself would report, decades later, that “the article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived.” Regardless, her murder changed the way Americans view their responsibilities in their neighborhoods — and their connection to the police.
As neighborhood watch programs grew in popularity, so did surveillance technology.
Officials wasted little time harnessing the outrage over bystander apathy and implemented the program of quasi–law enforcement groups that would become known as neighborhood watch. Several volunteer groups arose in the early 1970s, from a group in New York who were trained to give eyewitness accounts of crime to an official Neighborhood Watch program developed by the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) designed to quickly disseminate information from the police to the community and promote civic engagement.
The NSA program was based mainly on controversial research that came out of the Chicago School of Sociology, which advanced the theory that “social disorganization,” or the lack of social control in society, is what leads to crime. Similar to the ideas promoted by “broken windows” policing, the Chicago School thought that cracking down on smaller-scale crimes, with the help of concerned neighbors, could help prevent more serious criminal activity.
The general idea with neighborhood watch programs is that citizens can act as extra “eyes and ears” in the community and report crime and suspicious behavior to the police. These programs grew without fanfare for much of the 1980s and ’90s. Police and communities touted the benefits of neighborhood watch, but actual studies were scant and their conclusions unpersuasive. Nonetheless, communities and police continued to start new programs throughout the country until neighborhood watch became the most well-known crime prevention program in the United States.
As neighborhood watch programs grew in popularity, so did surveillance technology. CCTV, the first widely used video surveillance tool, gained widespread popularity in the 1980s and ’90s. The video systems allowed cops to magnify their surveillance by feeding video from several different CCTV cameras directly to a bank of monitors overseen by a single person. Business owners and even private citizens enthusiastically installed CCTV systems in the name of crime prevention and personal safety.
While white neighborhoods started neighborhood watch programs, black neighborhoods were decimated by overpolicing and incarceration.
CCTV — which seems quaint compared to a network of smart doorbells that are technically controlled by a massive e-commerce corporation — was met with harsh backlash from privacy experts, who called it a violation of civil liberties. CCTV owners weren’t concerned. Not yet armed with Wi-Fi and smartphones, they shared their home security bloopers the old-school way: on America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s a phenomenon continued by Ring, which regularly promotes funny doorbell videos.
This turn toward technology-augmented surveillance also provided ample opportunity for government abuse. At the same time that neighbors began to watch each other in the name of public safety, CCTV cameras began to appear, watching us at the bank, the courthouse, and the store. CCTV cameras were installed first by police to monitor select areas, and then increasingly permeated all aspects of the public square.
As policing and technology changed, our prison populations boomed, with changes in drug and sentencing policies mandating more and longer sentences. Along with heightened arrest numbers and longer prison sentences, police saw neighborhood watch as an integral part of a war on crime that disproportionately targeted people of color. While white neighborhoods started neighborhood watch programs, black neighborhoods were decimated by overpolicing and incarceration.
After 9/11, personal safety and security took on a new urgency. In 2002, the National Sheriffs’ Association joined with the Department of Justice to pivot its program toward national security. Together, they rebranded Neighborhood Watch as USA on Watch, and communities were encouraged to “become active in homeland security” and to “fight against terrorism.” The terrorism-fighting mechanism was mostly limited to encouraging disaster preparedness among neighbors, but the insider/outsider dichotomy present in Neighborhood Watch programs took on new meaning as Islamophobia ran rampant in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Communities, now believing they were responsible for the security of the entire country, began closely surveilling their black and brown neighbors in the name of homeland security and engaged in hate-based violence in the name of retribution for 9/11. The FBI and NYPD took things further, putting entire communities under surveillance for years, using license plate readers and tapping the phones of blocks upon blocks of New Yorkers who lived in predominantly Arab communities.
Although it is not clear why, the Department of Justice eventually pulled funding from the USA on Watch program and reverted to its original moniker under the umbrella of the National Sheriffs’ Association. The shift back to the less exciting, nonterrorism-related activities of the average neighborhood watch, however, did not stem the racism that seems to have seeped into most initiatives.
While some neighborhood watch programs do nothing more than host monthly police-liaison community meetings, others have adopted the idea and title of neighborhood watch to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, looking for undocumented migrants, or to stalk the streets on behalf of the KKK, presumably looking for nonwhite residents out after dark. Many of these groups invest heavily in police and military-grade gear, from mobile command centers to high-tech surveillance gadgets.
Some of the problems endemic to neighborhood watch groups were thrust front and center in 2012, when neighborhood watch block captain George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in a Florida subdivision. The resulting trial revealed that Zimmerman frequently called the cops to report black men in the neighborhood as part of his neighborhood watch duties. He was eventually found not guilty, and a large part of his defense relied on his role as a protector of the neighborhood.
While the Zimmerman trial was happening, neighborhood watch groups were slowly making their way online with the advent of Nextdoor.com, which launched in 2011. Nextdoor was one of the first major websites to actively solicit and distribute crime and safety information to neighborhood users alongside other neighborhood-related content. After a few relatively innocent years of posts about local plumbers and crowdsourced restaurant recommendations, Nextdoor developed a problem: rampant racial profiling. Posts regarding “suspicious” people of color walking down the road, riding their bike, or otherwise existing in public infiltrated the site. White users complained about people of color in their neighborhoods and described suspected perpetrators of crime in unhelpful and racist terms.
We will have to grapple with what exactly we are willing to sacrifice in the name of safety.
Nextdoor initially blamed the problem on racist users, but the company eventually set up systems to nudge members away from posting racist content by requiring posters to describe more than the race or ethnicity of suspected wrongdoers. Nextdoor’s solutions were both lauded as innovative and criticized for not doing enough, but no one seemed to question the underlying rationale for peer-to-peer policing in the first place.
In fact, Nextdoor’s successes set the stage for other tech companies to enter the market of nosy neighbors. Canary, a home camera system, allows you to sound an alarm or call the police directly from the app’s interface should you detect an intruder while staring at a video stream of your living room. SimpliSafe, a cloud-based home security system that promises to deter criminals from entering your home and promptly reports any alarms or disturbances to the police, had revenue of $38.5 million in 2013, up from $1.4 million in 2010. In 2018, a private equity and venture firm took control of SimpliSafe in a deal that valued it at around $1 billion.
Flock Safety, a Georgia-based security startup, wants to bypass individuals entirely. Flock cameras, which cost $1,500 per year, are “designed to solve crime” by reading and tracking the license plates on cars driving through the neighborhood, storing video footage, and using “advanced machine learning” to turn video footage into the “key images needed to make an arrest.” Ring has built something of a cult following around videos captured through its motion-sensing video doorbells, which the company encourages users to share on the Ring app and social media.
Neighbors is the logical next step — a place where video clips from your doorbells and security cameras are cannibalized into content for neighbors to scroll through and police to analyze. But Neighbors is also a glimpse into what seems like an inevitable future where neighborhood streets become a high-tech panopticon and neighbors spy on neighbors.
Tech companies are successfully convincing us that personal and public safety mandates a reduction in privacy and that policing our neighbors is the mark of a good citizen. But the decades of American jurisprudence about privacy are not merely the stuff of academic debate: They are a stark record of the abuses that arise when the state has unlimited access to the particulars of our lives. As use of private surveillance and high-tech neighborhood watch initiatives expand, we will have to grapple with what exactly we are willing to sacrifice in the name of safety. Because it isn’t just your neighbors the state wants to see from your video doorbell—it’s also you.
Update: Following the publication of this story, a Ring representative emailed the following statement:
Ring has community guidelines that are strictly enforced and all flagged posts are monitored by a team of trained Ring moderators. We are constantly working to make Neighbors better by continuing to add features and functionality that will help identify, reduce, and prevent the rare instances of inappropriate posts. The vast majority of posts to Neighbors meet our community guidelines and those that do not are quickly flagged and removed by the Ring team. We also encourage users to report inappropriate posts using our in-app flagging tool.
Over the past few years we have seen that when neighbors, the Ring team and law enforcement all work together, we can create safer communities. Neighbors is meant to facilitate real-time communication between these groups, while maintaining neighbors’ privacy first and foremost.