Gilliard began calling attention to Ring’s discriminatory potential soon after Amazon acquired it in 2018. He grew so preoccupied with the camera that he changed his Twitter name to “One Ring (Doorbell) to Surveil Them All,” a play on a line from “The Lord of the Rings.” He made himself available as an expert source to Vice, USA Today and the Associated Press, explaining how consumer surveillance tools such as Ring, along with social “neighborhood watch” apps such as Neighbors and Nextdoor, feed on people’s fears and amplify their biases.
“I think about what the effect is of law enforcement having easy access to cameras from everyone’s porch,” Gilliard said. “It makes nuisance crimes” — from stolen Amazon packages to an egged car — “available for escalation in a way that they weren’t previously.”
Gradually, Gilliard’s concerns were borne out. Stories began to emerge about Ring’s secret partnerships with police departments; its security vulnerabilities; the rampant racism on its neighborhood watch app, Neighbors; and how it trades on people’s suspicion of others who look like they “don’t belong.” (Ring says it doesn’t tolerate discrimination on the Neighbors app, and it encourages users to consider whether their suspicion is reasonable before sharing footage.)
Gilliard is “a true leading indicator,” said Rumman Chowdhury, an expert on artificial intelligence ethics who directs Twitter’s Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability team. “For anybody looking to understand the next narrative in tech, whatever tomorrow’s story is going to be, it would be smart to follow Chris and to listen to what he is saying.”
If Gilliard appears prescient about how tools of surveillance may be abused in the future, it might be because he’s intimately familiar with how they’ve been abused in the past.
Gilliard grew up in Detroit in the 1970s and ‘80s, a time and place associated with drugs and violent crime in the popular imagination. But Gilliard, one of eight children born to a washing-machine repairman and a cook, didn’t see it that way. To him, the perceptions of urban Detroit as a dangerous dystopia were more damaging than the reality. They meant that members of his community were viewed by White society primarily as a threat — a problem to be solved, or contained.