It’s just before 2am on an April Sunday during last year’s first lockdown, on a suburban road in north London. A man saunters down the front path of a semi-detached house, hands in the pockets of his denim shorts. Reaching the front door, he bends down to pick up two pretty olive trees in pots, much loved by the homeowner, then scarpers. Half a minute later, he continues on his ultra-early morning constitutional with a companion by his side and the plants on a grandma-style shopping trolley.
I know this not from waking up at the crack of dawn, nor CCTV, but the new method of constant watching: a relative’s Ring doorbell. The smart device, which allows the owner to watch what is happening outside of their front door on camera, has this week become the centre of a £100,000 payout after Dr Mary Fairhurst claimed her next door neighbour’s invaded her privacy. Thought to be the first of its kind in the UK, the judge’s ruling that she had been placed under ‘continuous visual surveillance’ may well set a precedent. But whether it puts a spoke in the smart doorbell’s inexorable advance – an estimated 16 per cent of homes in the US now have one, while Britain is the second biggest market with thousands being fitted every week – seems less certain.
How, the non-techie person might wonder, does the humble doorbell come to be filming anything? The answer is that these ever-more popular gadgets have a Cyclops-like camera and a microphone built into them.
Smart doorbells, of which there are now dozens on the market, still make a familiar ding-dong sound, but they are also connected to the internet and notify an absent homeowner’s mobile phone when a visitor arrives at their door. The owner can then see and have a conversation with the visitor.
The homeowner might be elsewhere in the house and unwilling or unable to answer the door. They might be at work. Or they might be in Zanzibar or the Swiss Alps. Wherever they are, the delivery man, the meter reader, the Jehovah’s Witness or whoever can be dealt with as necessary.
Additionally, if, like the north London plant thief, the visitor doesn’t press the bell, it still lets the homeowner know there’s someone lurking around their front door; they are extremely effective security devices by virtue of doing no more than gazing, unblinking, night and day from the front door of hundreds of thousands of private houses.
Smart doorbell advocates, who include a growing number of police forces around the world, say that the proliferation of Ring and similar cameras scares criminals away. The Los Angeles Police Department found that in an area where just 10 per cent of homes were fitted with a Ring, offences like burglary and theft went down by 55 per cent.
Additionally, more and more serious crimes are being solved partly with the help of the growing network of what is, in effect, private CCTV. The last sighting of Sarah Everard in March last year, before she was abducted while walking home in south London, was captured on a smart doorbell.