An illustration of someone holding up a phone where you can see someone with a hoodie walking in front of houses.

Vigilantism

Technology Is Making Vigilantism Easier Than Ever


As tech continues to shape our always-online world, every new camera, app, and device is an opportunity for the law to land in the wrong hands.



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After the Floyd uprisings in the summer of 2020, things began to fray in the mostly white suburb in the East Bay where I lived. Oakland, California, has its own complex history with policing, structural investments, and recent lapses in reducing violent crime. But in the suburb where I lived that summer, crime was present but not an acute threat.

Or so I thought. As dozens of Black Lives Matter posters sprung up around the block—there were more posters than Black residents—the posts on Nextdoor, the community-oriented forum app, became more paranoid: Did anyone hear about that break-in at the Walgreens? Did anyone hear that banging sound around 3 a.m. last night? Often there were pictures or videos attached: Did anyone recognize these men who walked through my yard yesterday?

Soon I developed an odd quirk—I started searching for myself. There were, at any given moment, half a dozen posts of a nondescript Black man in all black that made joggers wary. Was this me? Should I wear brighter colors? Should I stop walking with my headphones in? Paranoia can be transmitted. If one person is afraid of something, naturally another person would wonder if they should be afraid as well. White residents had their own fears of masked Black figures appearing in the night. I was just as afraid that I might be mistaken for one.

To me, the fear reflected in those posts echoed the words from officers who later claimed they feared for their lives after killing unarmed Black men.

Technology has accelerated our ability to connect with each other, but I’ve also seen it supercharge the spread of racist paranoia. Modern home security systems like Amazon Ring’s line of video doorbells, or neighborhood watch apps like Nextdoor and Citizen have gone from straightforward security measures to troubling privacy threats and now, an alarming new form of social propaganda. It’s not that one person saw a stranger and assumed it was a Black assailant; it’s that they now have the means to inform potentially dozens more people of that belief.

Certainly, technology did not create American vigilantism. But in our always-online, connected-to-everyone-always world, every camera is an opportunity—for infamy, celebrity, or even simple humiliation.

In only four years, Ring users have shared video clips with each other, with police departments, with Amazon itself for its ads for the device, and now with the world, as owners request delivery people perform Tik Tok dances and read from scripts they’ve written. When police and Ring users work together to target protestors, for example, it becomes clear “safety” is as much about reducing crime as it is about cultural and ideological maintenance.

This, for me, is the new future of American vigilantism, one built on surveillance and powered by these apps. What at first seems harmless or even protective, instead feeds our worst impulses. Residents surveil each other, then connect and upload footage based on a shared paranoia. It’s a twisted version of unity, one where people connect over a shared fear of the “other.”

Think of it as psychological mission creep.

Privacy and police reform activists use the term “mission creep,” to describe when a technology or tactic is introduced for a single, specific purpose, soon becomes normalized and, eventually, abused. During the Floyd uprisings of 2020, many noted how tanks and surveillance drones, designed for war abroad, crept onto American streets. SWAT teams were introduced in the 1960s to combat bank robberies, became supercharged during the war on drugs, and are now deployed over 80,000 times a year in all 50 states.

Ring started off as a simple way of having peace of mind while away from home. But when Amazon folded Ring into its suite of smart home products compatible with Alexa,  offering them free Ring cameras if they promised to give police their footage. Ring’s partnership gave police many more eyes in neighborhoods, with no requirement to seek warrants or establish reasonable suspicion. It wasn’t just that a resident would think of a passerby as suspicious; they could now make these suspicions a police matter, or by posting to forums like Nextdoor, deputize other residents in a search for suspects.

While these services have spent years mitigating the racist and xenophobic impulses of users, the fact is that corporate interests have made fortunes from mission creep, selling products that skew what it means to form a community.

The scope of the mission creep is only widened when learning that one of the earliest attempts at home security was created by a Black woman, with the intention of keeping Black women safe without ever relying on police at all.

In 1969, Marie Van Brittan Brown, a Black woman and nurse in Queens, New York, was granted one of the original patents for a home security system. The invention combined two-way microphones with a series of peepholes allowing a homeowner (pictured as a woman in bed) to see and speak to someone outside, before allowing or denying entry. The New York Times reported the story beneath the headline “Audio Viewer Screens Callers,” where Marie is pictured next to her husband, Albert, an electrician.

Brown told the Times the idea for her patent came because “it takes considerable time to dial the police and get action in an emergency.” Rather than a faster means for contacting police, Brown wanted a device to let homeowners, women especially, see and know who was outside their home and filter them. Notably, the emergency alarm button triggered others in the neighborhood, not police.

The device Brown imagined was meant to save Black lives, but corporate interests have twisted her legacy into one built on distrust of Black people and the endless presumption of our guilt. This contradiction epitomizes mission creep and is the ultimate fate of the entire suite of police and surveillance technologies that claim to protect us: Ultimately, they’ll entrap us in the walls we create. Neighborhood watch groups across the US have pushed for “safety” technologies that include drones, license plate readers, gunshot-detection microphones, and even military weapon exchange programs.

To me, it seems obvious that this isn’t making any of us safer, but the promise of safety is irresistible, even as it tricks us into supporting the tools that may be used against us.

In a way, I think this is what supercharged the importance of video footage. We see it as objective, unflappable, as totems whose meaning works across cultural spheres. Think of the viral videos of the past few years. They’re seen as undeniable proof—of rising crime, anarchist protestors, police brutality, etc. It makes sense people would seize on the ability to create, edit, and share “proof” of their worldview, but it divides more than it unites. I’m reminded of when the Obama administration invested tens of millions of dollars in police body cameras, claiming the devices could serve as an objective witness of officer-involved shootings and hopefully prevent more. They didn’t. Instead the devices were often manipulated to support officers’ narrative. Now, they are usually released after a victim has already been killed.

The video footage and posts in community watch apps are similarly intended to prove the reality of residents’ specific paranoia about violent crimes and Black men. I don’t find it entirely dissimilar from the humiliation slant of the #Karen videos, but here, the stakes are higher. This isn’t about being canceled; it’s about being made to live in a growing surveillance state where White residents arm themselves with video footage to prove a point about how my skin color makes me criminal. This is about what is going on inside the minds of White residents bombarded hourly by app updates of suspicious Black people in their neighborhood. This is about feeling safe while walking home alone at night.

This is the third installment of our series on vigilantism in America.  You can read part one here and part two here.

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