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Margaret Cudia thought her Ring doorbell camera was "the best thing since sliced bread." She loved watching her suburban New Jersey neighborhood, guarding vigilantly for suspicious strangers and porch pirates from the comfort of her phone.

She hadn't expected the camera also might capture awkward moments closer to home, like the time it caught her daughter grabbing a beer and talking about how controlling her mother was. "I never told her about that one," she said with a laugh.

Amazon's Ring, Google's Nest and other internet-connected cameras -- some selling for as little as $59 -- have given Americans the tools they need to become personal security forces, and millions of people now seeing what's happening around their home every second -- what Ring calls the "new neighborhood watch."

But the allure of monitoring people silently from afar has also proved more tempting than many expected. Customers who bought the cameras in hopes of not becoming victims joke that instead they've become voyeurs.

The Washington Post surveyed more than 50 owners of in-home and outdoor camera systems across the United States about how the recording devices had reshaped their daily lives. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Most of those who responded to online solicitations about their camera use said they had bought the cameras to check on package deliveries and their pets, and many talked glowingly about what they got in return: security, entertainment, peace of mind. Some said they worried about hackers, snoops or spies.

But in the unscientific survey, most people also replied that they were fine with intimate new levels of surveillance -- as long as they were the ones who got to watch.

They analyzed their neighbors. They monitored their kids and house guests. And they judged the performance of housekeepers, babysitters and other domestic workers, often without letting them know they were being recorded. "I know maybe I should" tell them, one woman explained, "but they won't be as candid."

Ring and Nest representatives said they had recently implemented new privacy and security measures to help protect customers' accounts and that they encourage new users to make it clear that the cameras can record at any time. Ring's installation guide suggests customers use stickers or signs to "let visitors know that your home is under audio/video surveillance by a Ring device."

No gadget since the smartphone has so quickly normalized personal surveillance. The motion-detecting cameras can be bought for as little as $59 and come in a range of styles, from outdoor units with sirens and floodlights to battery-powered "stick-up cams" that can be placed virtually anywhere. Owners can watch the cameras live or save the videos for a few dollars a month.

Some cities offer rebate and voucher programs for the cameras in hopes that more surveillance footage will make crimes easier to solve. The cameras have also become popular Christmas gifts, and Google and Amazon have advertised them around the holidays with hashtags like #CaughtOnNestCam and #AlwaysHome.

The extra eyes have been a huge gift to American law enforcement. Ring lets police officers use a special tool to ask customers for videos captured in and around their houses, and the number of police agencies with access has more than doubled since September, to nearly 900 agencies across 44 states, a Post analysis found. "Ring believes when communities and local police work together, safer neighborhoods can become a reality," Ring spokeswoman Yassi Shahmiri said in a statement.

By tallying up neighborhood reports of suspicion and uncertainty, the social network can also turn harmless moments -- the kind most people would have been blissfully ignorant of -- into signs of danger or sources of dispute.

Molly Snyder, an education blogger and mother of three in the suburbs outside Columbus, Ohio, said videos from Ring doorbells and other home cameras had become the biggest source of conversation and anger in her neighborhood Facebook group.

"There's never video of porch pirates or criminals. It's all what we're doing to each other, or what the mailman is doing to frustrate our day," she said. The postal worker's biggest transgression, she said, is not pulling all the way to the side of the road when delivering packages: "People capture that on video, and there's always a lot of rage commenting, with everybody dumping on the mailman," she said.

Her neighbors, she said, regularly post videos of children walking down the street alongside comments like, "Whose kids are these?" They don't look like they're doing anything wrong -- a typical breach involves taking a shortcut through someone's lawn -- but her children told her they knew of kids who had gotten in trouble after video was posted of them hitting a tree with a stick.

"We're not a neighborhood that's unsafe. We're also not a neighborhood where people spend a lot of time outside, interacting with each other," she said. "So we turn our Rings on and start dissecting all the children. Shouldn't we be encouraging each other to go outside, say hello and not just get alerts that you're walking past?"

Business on 02/19/2020

Print Headline: Camera systems stir neighbor-watching

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