Amazon’s synergistic plan for a light show based on footage from Ring, the controversial digital doorbell, is being denounced as state surveillance television in the tech press, activist circles and Congress.
Amazon subsidiary MGM Television produces Ring Nationdue out on September 26th, which hopes to capitalize on both the genre’s long history Candid camera-style reality programming, as well as today’s social media swirl (r/CaughtOnRing is a popular Reddit forum). According Deadlinewhich the show announced, the syndicated series is expected to include clips such as “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.”
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The show currently has a nationwide rollout in approximately 60 cities, including Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Dallas. There are no plans to run it on Amazon Prime Video.
The show’s premise was criticized in the tech press — among others Popular Science, The Verge, Ars Technica, Input and PC Magazine — as “dystopian.”
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce Committee that investigated Ring’s privacy policies and civil rights protections, and pressed Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for more clarity about its data security practices her. The Hollywood Reporter: “Let’s be clear, this is not America’s Funniest Home Videos — Amazon appears to be producing a clean ad for its own Ring products and disguising it as entertainment. He adds, “The Ring platform has too often made over-policing and over-surveillance a real and pressing problem for America’s neighborhoods, and efforts to smooth over these problems are no laughing matter. Amazon needs to focus on making strong security and accountability commitments to Ring users and making sure neighbors aren’t robbed of their privacy and civil liberties.”
Related Video: Amazon’s Ring Camera Raises Civil Liberties Concerns, Says Sen. Markey
For Vasudha Desikhan, political director at the Action Center on Race & the Economy, a left-leaning think tank, the show is proof of why “we need to regulate Amazon’s monopoly power. This ecosystem allows them to use all their different areas of business in ways that only further their market dominance.”
In recent years, Amazon’s ring, which it bought for $1 billion in 2018, has been in the news for exposing user data, allowing hackers to take over smart doorbell cameras (subjecting users to death threats and blackmail) and providing video to police without a warrant or court order. Also, Ring once turned clips of users of children being molested into marketing material and refused to review whether it had obtained consent from the children’s parents, even though the minors were on private property at the time.
Ring Nation, aimed at having fun with other users’ footage, faces similar questions. “Sometimes what’s right and what’s moral doesn’t line up with what’s legal,” observes Chad A. Marlow, senior policy adviser at the American Civil Liberties Union. “One person’s joke may be another’s embarrassment or invasion of privacy.” He adds, “This device was sold to homeowners for security devices. Is it now a national laughing stock?’
This is explained by a representative of MGM Ring Nation will include content from a variety of sources, including home videos, mobile phones, as well as Ringtones and cameras. “Ring Nation secures permissions for each video from the owner and anyone who can be identified in the video or from companies that own the rights to the clips,” the spokesperson explains.
Two activist groups — whose concerns about Ring products include their potential use to prosecute patients and providers who perform abortions while attending health care trips — say THR they start a protest against the show. “Ring Nation is the latest attempt to rebrand, normalize, and profit from the widespread surveillance of black, brown, and other marginalized communities disproportionately affected by police brutality,” says Myaisha Hayes, director of campaign strategies at MediaJustice. “There’s nothing funny or safe about being watched by Amazon or the police every time you walk past your neighbor’s house.” Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, adds:Ring Nation it’s a PR effort to force us to normalize Amazon’s police surveillance situation. If they air this show, MGM is showing an appalling lack of respect for our nation’s basic privacy, racial justice, reproductive rights, and civil rights groups.”
For his part, Ring pointed THR in a review of civil rights and civil liberties launched in 2020 by the Policing Project at NYU Law School. The academic team noted that because of its findings, the home security company had “implemented over a hundred changes to its products, policies and legal practices.” (According to a spokesperson, Ring “contributed $25,000 to cover the cost of the audit,” and the Policing Project then chose to donate the amount to a nonprofit organization.) After the Policing Project released its report in 2021, the Ring president Leila Rouhi wrote, “We’re proud of these changes and will continue to innovate in privacy, security and user control to help realize our mission of making neighborhoods safer for everyone.”
Ring Nation It is produced by MGM TV’s non-scripted banner, Big Fish Entertainment, best known for A&E’s top ratings Live P.D, which followed American cops on patrol. The network canceled that series in June 2020, following the killing of George Floyd and a national reckoning with police brutality. (It has since been revived and revamped for the Reelz network as On Patrol: Live.)
Ring Nation Host Wanda Sykes, who, as it happens, worked for the National Security Agency before pursuing her comedy career (she had a top-secret clearance for the supplies that handled her job), says THR hopes to capture the “warm excitement and goofy moments” of the late Bob Saget’s work America’s Funniest Home Videos. “When I signed on to do this show, my only goal was to capture that energy with the viewers at home,” adding, “I respect everyone’s privacy and civil liberties, and I would never sign on to be a part of anyone I violate that — and I like to think that my fans know that about me. The show I wrote features user-submitted content and develops in the spirit of what I can talk about, making your day a little funnier.”
Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, believes that “Ring has sold out the market for people who feel scared and think they need security cameras. What this show does is say, “Security cameras aren’t just for surveillance, they’re also meant to accidentally capture life’s happiest moments.” What people don’t realize is that for every funny moment they capture, they’re also capturing 4,000 moments you’d rather not be sitting on Amazon’s servers.”
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