Networked doorbell surveillance cameras like Amazon’s Ring are everywhere, and have changed the nature of delivery work by letting customers take on the role of bosses to monitor, control, and discipline workers, according to a recent report by the Data & Society tech research institute.
“The growing popularity of Ring and other networked doorbell cameras has normalized home and neighborhood surveillance in the name of safety and security,” Data & Society’s Labor Futures program director Aiha Nguyen and research analyst Eve Zelickson write. “But for delivery drivers, this has meant their work is increasingly surveilled by the doorbell cameras and supervised by customers. The result is a collision between the American ideas of private property and the business imperatives of doing a job.”
Thanks to interviews with surveillance camera users and delivery drivers, the researchers are able to dive into a few major developments interacting here to bring this to a head. Obviously, the first one is the widespread adoption of doorbell surveillance cameras like Ring. Just as important as the adoption of these cameras, however, is the rise of delivery work and its transformation into gig labor.
The popularity of networked doorbell surveillance cameras was not an inevitable outcome, but a development that companies like Amazon have cultivated through a variety of well-documented methods. The company has spent years stoking suburban paranoia, then offering Ring surveillance cameras as a salve. It has partnered with police departments (at least 2,000 as of this summer) to offer Ring cameras for free or at a steep discount. Ring surveillance cameras are offered at a discount during Prime Day, the pagan holiday celebrating Amazon’s consumption cult. The company is even launching a Ring surveillance footage TV show. Each of these methods have also been part of the company’s monopoly speedrun which has shifted commerce away from physical brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce and delivery workers.
As the report lays out, Ring cameras allow customers to surveil delivery workers and discipline their labor by, for example, sharing shaming footage online. This dovetails with the “gigification” of Amazon’s delivery workers in two ways: labor dynamics and customer behavior.
Consider Amazon’s Prime program, which created with its promise of near-instantaneous delivery an immediate logistics problem for Amazon. In response, the company created an on-demand delivery driver workforce: Amazon Flex. Like other labor platforms (Uber, DoorDash, etc.), Flex drivers are classified as independent contractors and are denied overtime pay, paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, and standard labor rights or protections. In exchange, they were given the “freedom” to have variable pay, to cover their own vehicle maintenance, find their own health insurance, and risk their bodies.
“Gig workers, including Flex drivers, are sold on the promise of flexibility, independence and freedom. Amazon tells Flex drivers that they have complete control over their schedule, and can work on their terms and in their space,” Nguyen and Zelickson write. “Through interviews with Flex drivers, it became apparent that these marketed perks have hidden costs: drivers often have to compete for shifts, spend hours trying to get reimbursed for lost wages, pay for wear and tear on their vehicle, and have no control over where they work.”
That competition between workers manifests in other ways too, namely acquiescing to and complying with customer demands when delivering purchases to their homes. Even without cameras, customers have made onerous demands of Flex drivers even as the drivers are pressed to meet unrealistic and dangerous routes alongside unsafe and demanding productivity quotas. The introduction of surveillance cameras at the delivery destination, however, adds another level of surveillance to the gigification.
Amazon already surveils its Flex drivers by spying on closed Facebook groups, but sought to add surveillance cameras in delivery vehicles over “safety” concerns its labor conditions created. The move won’t change anything, but it will introduce tighter, more algorithmic control over workers who were recruited with promises of flexibility and independence—a promise familiar to anyone who has spent time looking at or working in the gig economy. Amazon’s introduction of surveillance cameras to doorsteps works along similar lines, allowing customers to do their best impersonation of a boss that expects workers to listen and obey, or suffer the consequences.
Nguyen and Zelickson identify this trend in customers as “boss behavior” or “a range of actions, often undertaken in the name of safety or package security, that also function as the direct management of delivery workers” as part of a way to monitor, instruct, and punish delivery workers.
Not only do customers get notification prompts to track or monitor, but also believe it “encourages virtuous behavior” as well as ensures “workers behave a certain way on their property.” When it comes to instruction, customers are “emboldened to correct and instruct delivery workers because the activity takes place on their property, and with the doorbell camera they can see it in real time from any location” even when such requests, interpreted as orders, are unreasonable ones or clash with a driver’s other responsibilities (e.g. making other deliveries on-time). Customers were also open about how the use of surveillance cameras encouraged them to penalize drivers more, whether by reporting them to Amazon, alerting law enforcement, or sharing footage online to shame them. All of these forms of customer behavior are for the most part indistinguishable from various forms of workplace management.
As Nguyen and Zelickson point out, it is ingenious how Amazon has “managed to transform what was once a labor cost (i.e., supervising work and asset protection) into a revenue stream through the sale of doorbell cameras and subscription services to residents who then perform the labor of securing their own doorstep.”
The report’s conclusion is clear: Amazon has deputized its customers and made them partners in a scheme that encourages antagonistic social relations, undermines labor rights, and provides cover for a march towards increasingly ambitious monopolistic exploits.
This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.
By Edward Ongweso Jr