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They seem to be everywhere now. Smart doorbells like Amazon’s Ring are catching porch pirates in the act and revealing nocturnal animal hijinks. But they’re also constantly monitoring delivery drivers who essentially work on our doorsteps.
A new report from the nonprofit research group Data and Society explores how this “doorbell surveillance” is affecting delivery drivers.
Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Aiha Nguyen, program director for Data & Society’s Labor Futures Initiative, about how the proliferation of these cameras is influencing delivery jobs that are increasingly being done by gig workers with few protections.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Aiha Nguyen: The jobs are very precarious. In addition to not having set routes, drivers can be sent to any number of neighborhoods, and often the neighborhoods are not the same. They’re driving in their own vehicles without clear markings and entering onto private property where they also are not covered by an employment relationship. They’re considered independent contractors. We’ve talked to drivers who’ve had to drive down long driveways that’s potentially a mile off the road. And sometimes, particularly in rural areas, they don’t have cell reception down there. So they’re really concerned about what happens if they’re attacked by dogs, or if a customer comes out, and they’re not expecting a delivery or someone to be on their property. And we did talk to one worker [where] the owner came out with a gun, and they had not grown up around guns and obviously [were] very fearful, so they had to step out of their vehicle very quickly, and announced themselves as a worker. So there’s definitely greater risk with this type of work. We also spoke to several workers of color, Black workers who felt like they were disproportionately surveilled or watched by neighbors, as well, because of their race.
Meghan McCarty Carino: What have delivery workers told you about their experiences with these surveillance cameras?
Nguyen: One was that they always noticed the camera. And they were also aware that there was a potentially a person watching them. And so some workers would modulate their behavior. And some workers would wave and say hello to the camera even if they didn’t know if anyone was home. They would place packages down more gently and motion to the camera about where it was placed. One driver said that she apologized on camera when they accidentally knocked something over, partly because they know that retailers make it clear that the customer has a lot of power over this situation, and also, it’s on a customer’s private property. One interesting thing that we found was that drivers liked it when they saw a camera, because they saw it as a form of backup in case anything happened to them, like a customer accusing them of misbehavior or theft, or if they were attacked, because they are alone, working in very strange environments. But this also points back to how precarious this work can be and how unregulated this space is.
McCarty Carino: Right, you also spoke to some of those customers who own these doorbell cameras. What did you learn about how they use the tech and how it influences their relationship with delivery workers?
Nguyen: We found that customers, whether they were aware of it or not, were engaging in what we call “boss-like behaviors” that essentially control the work of the delivery drivers at the doorstep. The first was monitoring. One woman said she would check her app at least three to five times a day when she was expecting a delivery and then literally watch as the person went about their business. Some would take it a step further and start instructing workers on how to behave. Drivers have been asked to, you know, put the package in the garage, in the car trunk. The drivers were very aware of the fact that the customers were telling them what to do. We’re having workers who are being now supervised by millions and millions of bosses that change from doorstep to doorstep. And retailers are providing workers with the affordances to be that boss through the [app] technology, but also this perpetual idea that the customer’s always right. And I think if we think about worker privacy, their privacy is being invaded at every single step.
McCarty Carino: Your report notes that these cameras are sometimes being used as a tool to punish delivery workers, right?
Nguyen: Yes, yes, exactly. Because there are networked tools that record, customers can use the recordings and report it to different actors. So if they felt that a driver was treating their package poorly, like one customer did, they reported it to the retailer and said, “You know, my package was treated with disrespect.” But the footage is also often placed onto social media sites like Neighbors and Nextdoor in order to warn other neighbors about people that they considered to be suspicious or acting poorly. Another way to punish is essentially to put it on much broader social media like YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, where shaming is a form of punishment, which is the last behavior. And then lastly, and the most, I think, problematic is reporting some of this to law enforcement when they perceive criminal activity has occurred.
McCarty Carino: So clearly, these kinds of cameras do have some useful applications but what would you recommend doorbell camera owners do to mitigate some of the surveillance concerns that you raise here?
Nguyen: I think it would be important for customers to pay attention to when a ping on their phone nudges them to watch and judge workers, and who ultimately that benefits, because what’s happening is that a retailer has gotten customers to do the work of supervising workers and protecting packages for them. And customers are essentially paying for the tools to do this. Ultimately, our main point is that while this tool is marketed as a safety and security tool, it’s being used to manage workers. So this is essentially a labor issue. Labor advocates need to be involved in conversations about neighborhood mass surveillance in order to find solutions around these pressures that these workers are experiencing.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
If you want to get a bit more insight on the lack of privacy rights and regulations in this space, check out this recent article from Wired, especially when it comes to the videos those doorbell cameras capture.
They get posted on platforms like Nextdoor and YouTube, and there’s even a TV show, “Ring Nation,” that’s like a dystopian doorbell camera version of America’s Funniest Home Videos.
According to the Verge, dozens of civil rights groups have called on the producers — Amazon and MGM — to cancel the show, saying in an open letter that the show is “normalizing and promoting Amazon’s harmful network of surveillance cameras.”
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