Neighbors—the free “neighborhood watch” app that accompanies Amazon-owned Ring doorbell cameras—is hiring a new “Managing Editor” for news in the Santa Monica area, according to a job listing which gained attention on Twitter late last week.
The editor will be in charge of crafting the news alerts that already appear alongside user-submitted camera footage in the Neighbors app. These news alerts give information about local crime in the area, such as reported burglaries, shootings, fires, or police activity in a given area.
The position requires a person who has a "deep and nuanced knowledge of American crime trends," as well as more than five years of experience in "breaking news, crime reporting, and/or editorial operations," as well as leadership experience, according to the job listing.
Functionally, the alerts are similar to a crime log in a city paper. But in practice—as an embedded feature in an app designed to sell users on Amazon doorbell cameras—these news alerts serve two important purposes: One, the alerts add a professional layer that legitimizes the app and all of the information that appears in it. And two, they can foster the impression that a given community is crime-ridden, unsafe, and therefore, in need of additional surveillance from Amazon doorbell cameras.
Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community College who studies institutional tech policy, told Motherboard in a phone call that the job ad concerns him because it doesn’t nod to any of the “basic truths about how crime and punishment work in our society.”
“When it says ‘crime trends,’ it doesn’t mean white collar crime—it’s not catching tax cheats, or people poisoning the water,” Gilliard said. “It casts crime as this thing that’s done by certain kinds of people in certain kinds of neighborhoods. And it’s very much coded. When they say that, you know who they’re referring to. But there’s no awareness of that built in.”
In an email to Motherboard, a Ring spokesperson said this is not a new position but didn’t elaborate about how many editorial positions the app has working on the news alerts feature. The spokesperson also said that the news team is responsible for gathering information from crime reporting agencies, social media, and information from public institutions.
Ring declined to clarify whether the news team interacts with law enforcement, or in what capacity it may interact with law enforcement. However, The Intercept has reported that Ring built a portal for law enforcement officers to request and access camera footage from Ring doorbell cameras, and directly interacts with law enforcement to aid investigations. Additionally, local police departments like that of Hayward, California have given community discounts for Ring products. As Motherboard reported, that same city received help from Amazon in setting up a package theft sting operation by providing Amazon-branded packages and tape to law enforcement.
As documented by Motherboard earlier this year, Neighbors has a problem with racism, much like similar neighborhood-based apps like NextDoor. Motherboard documented every user-submitted post on Neighbors within a five-mile radius of the VICE offices in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for more than two months and found that user-submitted videos on Neighbors (taken on Ring cameras) disproportionately depict people of color. The descriptions for these videos frequently use racist language or make racist assumptions about the people shown. A Ring representative told Motherboard in an email that most of the posts in Neighbors app feeds are user-submitted videos.
Ultimately, the user-submitted posts on Neighbors gain legitimacy from adjacency to verified crime reports submitted by Ring employees. But it’s unclear if this Amazon-owned digital neighborhood watch apparatus can actually do what it claims to do: “reduce crime in your community.”
“What does it mean to have a crime beat focused around a tech whose major claim is it helps you prevent crimes?” Gilliard said. “How can you trust the investment of that source to look out for your best interests?”