Digital home cameras create doorstep police state for delivery workers, study warns

Delivery workers, already struggling to cope with Amazon’s app-driven work regime, now face increased surveillance from customers using digital doorstep cameras, a report has found.

Worse still, some academics contend that the rising use of smart Ring camera technology – bought by Amazon along with the company in 2018 for more than $1 billion – has given rise to racialized digital surveillance in American neighborhoods. Now, black workers in white areas are being reported to the authorities as “suspicious” by local residents using the technology.

The study, commissioned by non-profit research group Data & Society – which scrutinizes artificial intelligence and automated systems and their impact on the workforce – found that residential doorsteps are becoming a battleground between customer satisfaction and workers’ rights to privacy and, in some cases, freedom from discrimination.

“Marketed as an essential home and neighborhood security tool, doorbell cameras are now a ubiquitous feature across the United States,” the report disclosed. “The devices are commercially available and relatively simple to install. Some major home developers such as Lennar Homes have even formed partnerships with smart doorbell makers to incorporate this technology into the new wave of digitally connected smart homes.”

While this might seem like good news for security-conscious homeowners, in practice, it has led to delivery workers being scrutinized on the job and being “punished” with negative ratings that jeopardize their livelihoods – criticisms that they claim are often arbitrary or unfair.

“In part because it is so easy to save and share footage from doorbell cameras to social media, there has been an increasing number of videos of delivery drivers posted online over the past few years,” said Data & Society.

Such footage is often used by customers to observe delivery workers and make sure they are doing their jobs properly. In some cases – such as that of Sheryl who used her digital camera to catch a deliveryman kicking her parcel and reported him to Amazon – such action seems warranted.

“There has been a time where I had to speak to them through the Ring [camera],” said another resident surveyed by Data & Society. “They were leaving [the package] right in front of the door, just for anybody to drive past and see it […] I wanted them to place it behind and off to the side [...] so I had to ask them to do that.”

Screenshot of rating app used by customers
Apps like these allow customers to rate deliveries - but is this technology being abused?/Image by Data & Society

Shamed and profiled on the job

But in other cases, delivery workers have complained that disgruntled customers take their digital surveillance too far. Unsettling practices include “shaming” by posting footage of them online, which they say impinges on their right to privacy. The report found cases where this happened to drivers for relatively small infractions, such as driving on a customer’s lawn during a delivery.

“I feel like those types of things are an invasion of privacy,” said one worker when asked about this practice. “I don’t know how those privacy laws work exactly, but I know that if it’s your footage then you can post it. I see people posting their delivery drivers all the time, which I’ve always thought is a little bit suspect.”

Another worker was more blunt. “Why should you put someone on social media?” they asked. “Why don’t you just report directly to Amazon, and maybe they can deal with it? That’s like an invasion of privacy [...] and it doesn’t end up well. You can imagine how the family of that driver feels when they see that footage.”

And in the case of workers of color delivering to white, sometimes remote rural, neighborhoods, online reporting using smart camera footage can take on a more sinister aspect.

“Scholars, activists and journalists have reported on the use of networked smart cameras and accompanying social media platforms to exacerbate racial profiling and discrimination,” said Data & Society. “The act of watching and sharing footage on platforms such as Neighbors and Nextdoor can extend and intensify insider-outsider dynamics, which oftenoccurs along racial lines.”

The report cites legal scholar Rahim Kurwa, who claims that “the neighborhood-based social media platform Nextdoor provides a place for neighbors to weigh in on who does and does not belong in their space, functioning as a tool to digitally gate communities [that] achieve racial and class exclusion through the social policing and surveillance of homes and neighborhoods. [...] ‘Suspicious’ is frequently used as a coded racialized descriptor for people of color in white spaces.”

In some cases highlighted by the report, citizens are even colluding with local police forces in their efforts to surveil – and perhaps ultimately profile – workers.

“The fear that private security systems are creating a massive surveillance network is not unfounded,” said Data & Society. “Some workers recalled driving through neighborhoods where they were captured at nearly every doorstep on their delivery route.”

It added: “Moreover, Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement isn’t haphazard. One touted benefit of networked social media sites is the potential to engage with police.”

It evidenced this by pointing to Ring’s agreement with more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies across the US, which permits police to contact residents using the Neighbors platform and request their footage. A Senate inquiry published in July found that the Amazon subsidiary had provided such information to the authorities without user consent 11 times this year.

“Other municipalities have taken this a step further, creating programs where residents and businesses can proactively register and integrate their cameras directly with local police,” said the report. This essentially gives the law “a map of the private cameras in their jurisdiction and, in some cases, direct access to footage.”

Not all delivery workers are against the use of home digital cameras, however. One black driver from Chicago, Illinois, told Data & Society that their presence actually made him feel safer on the job.

“It verifies me, and it can help me in some cases when I’m being accused of anything,” he said, indicating that digital camera footage can be useful because it proves him innocent of any unfounded accusations by residents. “I’m a black person, in this country you have to be more careful – you can be accused of anything, any time.”

But other residents are concerned that the monitoring technology they depend upon to ensure good customer service could be abused in the wrong hands. Already this year, a disclosed vulnerability in the Ring camera app could have exposed users' personal data, location, and camera recordings.

“How do you have a technology like that without overusing it?” asked one customer in St Louis, Missouri. “I don’t want to use it to cooperate with police or some massive surveillance network of Ring cameras. I get really worried when people start to get overzealous and call the police on every random black person that comes by – but sometimes it can be useful for knowing when your Amazon packages show up, so I’ll probably hang on to it.”

Screenshot of Amazon Flex app
Amazon Flex's harsh metric automatically rates workers by their lowest-ranking category/Image by Data & Society

Amazon’s police state

Amazon has drawn fire in recent years for what critics say are punitive monitoring practices of its staff, with sister apps such as Flex used to micromanage their every move. Its metric for judging workers is set across two broad criteria, Reliability and Delivery Quality, – but automatically assesses them at “the lower of the two parts” rather than a fairer mean aggregate of the two values.

Such technology also leaves gig-economy workers unprotected by employment contracts or distinguished by uniforms at the mercy of negative reviews, whether fair or not.

“Based on our interviews, it was clear that ratings often do not account for circumstances beyond a worker’s control, and frequently incorrectly or inappropriately dock a worker for extenuating circumstances,” said Data & Society.

Or as one hapless delivery driver summed it up: “When you’re late, it’s usually [...] not within your control. There are all these things that put you in a late position that you can’t do anything about, and yet you get dinged for it.”

“Given our research, it is clear that the proliferation and use of video doorbell cameras have a direct impact on the lives of workers,” said Data & Society, adding that rather than its stated intended use of guarding against parcel theft or ensuring home security, such technology’s “primary use is the monitoring, instruction, and punishment of workers by customers.”

It added: “As customers install doorbells for protection from an absent criminal figure, they end up practicing a new form of doorstep surveillance on those actually present: delivery workers – in personal vehicles, without uniforms – likely arriving at a customer’s home for the first time.

“For those workers, arriving at the digital doorstep is now an experience of performing deference to an unseen and unknown audience – perhaps a homeowner, perhaps Amazon, perhaps the internet, or the police, or all of the above.”

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