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A Community of Fear
How security apps and devices like Ring and Nextdoor profit off our communal anxieties
By Nat Cohen
Nat Cohen is a Los Angeles based attorney and writer with a background in indigent criminal defense and eviction prevention.
Over the last few years, home surveillance devices and crime reporting social media platforms have proliferated in the U.S. The threats these services pose to privacy are manifold. But turning every neighborhood into a panopticon doesn’t just erode the fourth amendment—it encourages people to see any stranger as a potential threat. That can have ruinous consequences for those that are already considered “suspicious”: black and brown men, people experiencing mental illness or homelessness, and anyone else who looks “out of place.” It can also lead to absurd situations, like a homeowner calling 911 after mistaking surveillance footage of herself for a strange man.
Perhaps aware of their growing notoriety, these services are now selling themselves as spaces to foster community, collectivity, and care. In other words, they’re not just making users more afraid and isolated—they’re exploiting people’s desire to feel connected in an increasingly atomized, individualistic world. It’s a bleak and vicious cycle, and it makes these companies a lot of money (the market research firm IDC found that over 184 million home security devices were purchased worldwide in 2021.) It also enriches law enforcement, who increasingly rely on home surveillance tech for “data-driven” policing. This “data” is simply what users report as suspicious, creating a feedback loop of panic and fear that’s untethered from actual crime statistics.
The market is saturated with surveillance products and apps, but a few stand out for their popularity: Citizen, Ring, and Nextdoor.
Citizen is a smartphone app that utilizes police scanners and user reports to send “safety alerts” for local emergencies. It operates in over 60 U.S. cities, and claims upwards of 9 million users. Originally called “Vigilante” before it was banned from the Apple Store in 2016, Citizen sparked controversy last May when it offered a $30,000 bounty for information on a person misidentified as an arson suspect. It also piloted a short-lived private police force. The app is free, but it’s since launched a $19.99 per month offshoot called “Citizen Protect,” a virtual service that connects subscribers to on-demand, 24/7 “Protect Agents” who monitor users remotely and connect them to emergency responders if needed.
Ring, a smart doorbell company, was acquired by Amazon in 2018 for $1 billion. Later that year, Amazon launched Neighbors, a social media platform that allows users to upload footage directly from their Ring cameras exclusively for “crime and safety” purposes. In December 2019, Amazon sold nearly 400,000 Ring devices, and sold another 1.4 million in 2020. In her 2019 reporting for Vice, Caroline Haskins described Ring’s marketing materials as “a combination of America’s Funniest Home Videos, Ellen, and Cops.”
Although Nextdoor is at least nominally a closed social networking service that includes a marketplace and general message boards, it’s probably best known for its crime and safety pages. Launched in the U.S. in 2011, it soon became notorious for racial profiling amongst its user base. In a 2018 op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, Joel Stein dubbed it “a local news show anchored by every neighborhood's George Zimmerman.” In 2019, Michael Harriot at The Root shared stories from Nextdoor users who were either profiled themselves or shocked at the racism they saw directed at others.
Nextdoor, Ring, and Citizen all worked to cultivate close ties to law enforcement, but each has seen that relationship change within the last two years. The LAPD (at least publicly) cut ties with Citizen after the botched $30,000 bounty. Nextdoor announced in June 2020 that it would remove its “forward to police” feature, which allowed Nextdoor users to forward their safety post or urgent alert to local law enforcement. Ring posted in June 2021 that it had spent the past year working with “independent third-party experts” to create a more transparent, streamlined system for law enforcement to request camera footage from users—a system that still doesn’t require a warrant.
This pivot is unsurprising. Following the George Floyd protests of 2020, it felt like every company and public figure was committing to transparency and accountability. “We see you, we hear you (please keep buying our products).” Coming from brands like Gushers or Doritos, the effect was surreal, even funny. But the gesture feels more insidious coming from companies whose entire revenue stream is built around targeting “suspicious” people and creating online gated communities.
It’s particularly galling when viewed against their previous marketing tactics. When it launched in 2018, Neighbors touted itself as “The New Neighborhood Watch.” Web searches suggest that messaging changed sometime in 2020. Now, the company uses phrases like “Join the Neighborhood” and “Safer Neighborhoods, Together.”
Back in 2016, Ring’s CEO Jaimie Siminoff sent a company-wide email declaring war against “the dirtbag criminals that steal our packages and rob our houses,” and announced that every employee was getting a free “awesome” camouflage-print t-shirt. Vice later obtained a 2017 slide presentation touting a cash incentive program for people to create “digital neighborhood watch” groups with Ring. The presentation explained that members could get “free swag” for recruiting 10 new users, and would receive 50 percent off any product if they “solve a crime with the help of their local police officer.” This digital bounty program was short-lived, but quickly replaced by the Neighbors app.
Ring’s website copy today strikes a very different tone: "We believe that stronger communities are the key to safer neighborhoods. That’s why we’re driven to create products that help you protect what matters most at home and empower you to connect with your neighbors from wherever you are."
Citizen, née Vigilante, is also suddenly big on empowerment, connection, and community. On an FAQ page that asks “what is Citizen’s mission?” The answer reads: “We believe in public information for the good of the public. In being able to act on safety alerts in real time. In transparency that bonds and that empowers everyone in a community, from city council to residents. We believe in giving people a way to use their phones to protect a neighbor, to prevent a tragedy, and to count on one another. And to create a safer world for each other, with each other.”
Nextdoor became a publicly listed company in November 2021. Its ticker symbol is KIND. After all, as the company states, “kindness is core to Nextdoor’s purpose: to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on. When we say ‘kind,’ we mean being respectful, welcoming, empathetic, and willing to boldly act and support one another.”
Brands co-opting progressive terminology for profit is nothing new. Cause marketing has existed for decades, and has monetized LGBT pride, breast cancer awareness (both forms of “pinkwashing”), environmental justice (“greenwashing”), and most recently racial justice. These marketing ploys are deeply cynical, and at times outright harmful. Breast Cancer Action first coined the term pinkwashing to refer to companies that sell “pink ribbon” products while simultaneously selling products that are carcinogenic. Greenwashing is similar: think “airline carbon offsets” and “clean coal.” Sarah Schulman later amplified a different use of pinkwashing, to describe Israel’s rebrand to LGBT safe haven as a tool to obscure ongoing human rights violations against Palestinians.
This newer phenomenon of “fearwashing” is no less cynical or harmful. For all their talk of community and connection, services like Citizen and Ring have a fiscal incentive to make people feel suspicious, fearful, and isolated. Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor at Syracuse University who has researched police use of social media, told CNN last year that "the Citizen app has a conflict in any type of business where they may—in response to fear based on information they've provided—develop a private security service…that is a direct incentive and conflict; they have an incentive to create a propaganda environment and turn around and exploit it." Citizen Protect, the $19.99 per month virtual security service, assures customers that “whether you’re walking home alone, meeting someone new, going for a run, or just going about your day, you’re safer with Citizen Protect.”
Reporter Caroline Haskins put it another way when reporting on Ring, but the logic applies equally to Citizen and Citizen Protect: “The Neighbors app is free. But the more unsafe the app makes you feel, the more inclined you would feel to dole out money for a Ring home security system.”
Anxieties about crime have returned to pre-pandemic levels, but often left unsaid in crime reporting is that Americans traditionally think national crime rates are much higher than local ones. A 2020 Gallup poll showed a 14 point increase in perceptions of nationwide crime (from 64 to 78 percent) but a 1 point decrease for local crime perceptions (from 39 to 38 percent). Now, that gap is shrinking: 74 percent of Americans polled believed crime was up nationwide, and 51 percent believed it was up locally.
Push notifications from Neighbors, Nextdoor, and Citizen about local crimes or suspicious activity aren’t the sole driver of that trend, but they are some of the most downloaded social and news apps in the country. David Ewoldsen, professor of media and information at Michigan State University, told Vox that it’s natural for people to want to know information about their community to keep themselves safe. The problem is, “you go on because you’re afraid and you want to feel more competent, but now you’re seeing crime you didn’t know about,” Ewoldsen said. “The long-term implication is heightened fear and less of a sense of competence... It’s a negative spiral.”
Those anxieties aren’t created in a vacuum. They’re cultivated by local and national news stories that amplify police narratives about “crime waves,” even when those stories are very misleading. And they’re reified by a popular culture obsessed with true crime. It’s unsurprising that true crime podcasts frequently partner with the home security system Simplisafe, since they also stand to benefit from a fanbase that’s nervous about stranger danger.
Risk calculation is hard, and fear is personal. When those hunches are reported to an app, or the police, they become a “community” issue, but not in the way Citizen or Ring mean. It’s not that the fear is always wrong, but it has to be reckoned with as more than a way to feel self-actualized and empowered. Electronic doorbells and security apps may provide internal peace of mind, but that fear doesn’t disappear: it’s externalized onto the streets, homes, and passerby that make up a neighborhood. Citizen’s promise of a “safer world for each other, with each other” underscores the problem. “Safer world” is easy enough to define, but deciding on “each other”—who belongs in a community— is a question these services have a financial stake in. They can market it as collectivity and care, but what they’re selling is paranoia.