Op-Ed: When fear meets technology, your evening walk ends up on video

A camera doorbell next to a front door.
No one likes being watched, but home security systems can provide a welcome extra pair of high-tech eyes.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

Walking around my son’s cozy Los Angeles neighborhood with its Tesla-lined driveways and stunning telescopic views of the Hollywood Hills, I noticed the neighborhood had its eyes on me.

Stepping from house to house and street to street, I encountered a friendly, disembodied voice. “Hi!” she said, “You are currently being recorded.” Never mind I was in the middle of the road.

At night, the same walk triggered a bright light beaming from garages and closed front doors, as my movements tripped motion detection recorders en route. Fenced dogs barked furiously and signs warned of “armed response.” I began to think of the rising palm trees as guard towers.


Living in New York, I don’t often notice the citywide surveillance apparatus but see its effects in scary news stories of home invasions and subway assaults, with video captured by Ring cameras and CCTV. Afforded the safety of a large apartment building with a doorman, I keep our front door unlocked. Our wide-angle peephole has been broken for years, covered by duct tape. Our biggest protection is a mezuzah Torah prayer mounted over the entrance.

In Venice Beach, footage from cameras purchased by a group of merchants has helped solve terrible crimes.

Oct. 23, 2022

But in the SoCal enclave where my son lives, near Culver City, with hillside cul-de-sacs and only a trickle of pedestrians, the idea of smart security devices seems reasonable, even if I felt like a perp whenever I set foot outside his house. A forensic video record exists of my walkabouts, no doubt catching me adjusting my pants, cleaning my ears and yes, double bagging the garbage after our family meals. I can also be heard answering my unseen chaperone: “You talking to me?”

Los Angeles and New York, like many major cities, have been plagued by an uptick in crime, which has heightened local suspicion, including in the racially diverse liberal neighborhood I was visiting. Add to that a set of technology tools that allows homeowners to create their own virtual and connected security forces.

The taped footage from smart door cameras is increasingly deployed by prosecutors in courtroom settings to prove criminal activity in plain sight. One of my colleagues in the Bay Area successfully used video of a home break-in to convict a local thief who was recorded in broad daylight hiding on his porch, and later carrying computer equipment from the house.

Although defense lawyers try to suppress such “gotcha” evidence as a violation of an individual’s 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable or warrantless searches, the footage has just as often been ruled admissible for being in “public view,” that the camera just happened to have captured.

But in a low-crime area like my son’s, even modest infractions get noticed. He was busted for depositing his dog’s crap bag in someone else’s bin and a tape quickly made the rounds on the local Nextdoor app. “Watch out for this guy!” was the Interpol-like alert. Now a model citizen, he snapped if I let his dog set foot on his neighbors’ artificial lawns or pee on their cactus.


One evening we reviewed some Ring footage on my daughter-in-law’s phone — it’s become the latest version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” There she was returning home tipsy one night, fiddling with her keys and telling the dogs to “Shush, my babies.” In another segment shot from the living-room camera, my son was caught face-planting over a laptop cord. My wife was captured in spooky night vision cradling our newborn granddaughter at 2 a.m.

The number of surveillance cameras has doubled in recent years to roughly 2,000 across the city’s 5.7-square-mile footprint, raising concerns among privacy rights advocates.

April 25, 2022

There was also this taped snippet: A vagrant we’d encountered muttering on a neighbor’s porch was seen approaching my son’s set-back property, rooting through the trash bins for a drink. My son politely confronted the guy, and he moved on down the road. Quality video of him was later shared with a member of the neighborhood safety committee. It was a reminder that the camera only needs to get it right one time to serve its purpose.

No one likes being watched, but absent private sentinels or cops on the beat, residents rightly welcome an extra pair of high-tech eyes, though some window blinds might help.

I was awakened at 3 a.m. one night by the San Quentin-strength security light outside my son’s guest bedroom. It stayed lit for minutes, and I thought I heard something rustling outside. I considered waking the household, but all went quiet, and I fell back asleep.

The next morning, we examined the video and saw evidence of a violent encounter with an unwanted guest: A large spider had tangled with an insect in its web. No arrests were made.

Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.