Family

“There Is Motion at Your Front Door”

How a seemingly innocuous “video doorbell” app turned my life into a domestic horror movie.

Fisheye peephole view of a man in a suit at the door.
Thinkstock

Last May, my wife and baby and I moved from Austin to Dallas, into an actual house in an actual neighborhood on the east side of the city. We had a few weeks to set up before my wife was going to leave for about three months for job training. Aside from my child and wife, I knew no one in town. We spent a week filling our lives with the things we thought were supposed to go in houses: a sleek water heater that hummed like a cyclotron, new fuses, and a noise machine for our son.

We learned about our surroundings, too. We introduced ourselves to the neighbors on each side and the families across the street. Our son tried to make inroads with the local dogs. Life started to fill in. The local bar and the nice neighborhood bistro. Trash to the alley, not to the curb.

The idea that we would possibly need security didn’t come up until I called an insurance agent. We had been in the house for almost two weeks, and the voice on the phone asked what kind of security we had in place. I told him: a gate on our driveway, locks on our front and back door, and a padlock on the fence to the alley. How was that? Nigh uninsurable, it turns out.

So we got the name of an ADT agent, and when she came over, everything in our home was described as a potential weakness. We said yes to the conventional setup, a central alarm, sensors on our doors and on our first-floor windows. Nothing too extra. The woman from ADT sat and chatted with us at our dining room table as we filled out paperwork. My wife or I said something offhand, maybe about her being gone for the summer or us being new to town, and suddenly the ADT agent had a box on our table. She was saying something along the lines of “Well, it’s very modern and young families just love it.” It was called the Ring video doorbell. We said sure, let’s get that too.

The box that contains Ring advertises it as something between “caller ID for your front door!” and a Silicon Valley version of CCTV that replaces your normal doorbell. Each time someone rang our doorbell, my phone would jerk to life and cut to a live feed of our front door. And wherever I was, I could chat through the app to whomever was outside the door.

Doorbells have always had an odd aesthetic appeal to me—from the rococo plastic swoops attached to suburban McMansions to the bare gray rectangular ones on saltbox New England duplexes. One childhood friend in Providence, Rhode Island, lived in a grand, spare old Episcopalian house with a doorbell I loved whose chimes sounded like handbells. So Ring seemed very strange to me at first. I hated the look of it: the bland silver cube mounted next to our door frame, like an off-brand vape or a mislaid, godless faux-chrome mezuzah. I loathed, at first, the way its messages would zip across my phone screen. Its ringtone options were as tinny as first-generation MP3s. I felt like our house was wearing Google Glass.

I remember the moment I fell for the Ring app. Early July heat beat down on our corner of Texas. My wife was away, and I had been waiting for a repair on our dryer. At the moment the mechanic arrived, I was upstairs changing our son. The repairman tapped the doorbell, the app sprang to life, and I told the repairman I’d be down in a minute. Just like that, a knot of inconvenience disappeared from my life. Clean baby—no rush job on the changing table—and no grumpy dude wondering why I couldn’t get to the door. Ring had given me a parental gift: the chance to be in two places at once. I could see who was out there from anywhere. Soon it became indispensable, the solicitous ghost in my domestic machine.

Package deliveries and salespeople and neighbors—I could corral them all. When we found a nanny for our son, I could still field the front door when I was working or running errands. Taking on one more bit of mind-scattering device fatigue was fine with me in exchange for those extra few seconds of time.

But gradually, Ring’s hold on my brain deepened. And it started to seem more sinister. The thing has a motion sensor. Whenever something trips it, the phrase “There is motion at your Front Door” dutifully pings your phone. And goodness, look at that language. “There is motion” is the kind of military-industrial abstract anxiety that DeLillo’s made a career off of. Even the capitalization of Front Door adds an imperial twist: Enemies at the gate! Valar morghulis!

Then last fall our son descended into a season of poor health and repeated hospitalizations. We were up nights when he needed treatment, and we were up on other nights standing a jittery watch. During those nights, I saw how many times Ring sent that “motion at Front Door” alert to my phone. I’d rise at 1:15 thinking I heard a cough through the baby monitor and would see that the “motion” alert had been triggered a half-dozen times. Why? How? Though I knew in my core that all was fine outside, I still felt obsessed. I tried to see if there was a pattern to the overnight alerts. Stray cat making the rounds? College nemesis out for revenge? I found myself wondering: Could I find a way to live-feed the other Ring boxes in my actual neighborhood for some answers? Wasn’t that both the plot of the one good Batman movie and of the forgotten (now eerily prescient) Joe Eszterhas classic Sliver?

In an attempt to free myself from the domestic horror film that had become my life, I investigated the app settings. I realized that the default setting for what constituted “at” our door was wild: Movement over 30 feet from our door would trigger the sensor. Also, another class of alerts had infested the app. Other Ring owners in my “neighborhood” were posting their own reports, sometimes with snippets of video: “guy walking outside at 2am? What?” or “this woman knocked on our door and waited for a while.” Turned out that the default setting for a neighborhood was a radius of 3 miles. Even amongst the prairie sprawl of Dallas, I should not receive an alert from some (other?) hopped-up paranoiac in another ZIP code. And you can probably guess how frequently descriptors like “in a hoodie” and “not from this area” appeared in these informal reports.

I cranked down the alerts and decreased the territory of my neighborhood. I thought I had stabilized the app. I no longer felt like the chilly, serrated Gone Girl soundtrack was the base note of my being. But soon I noticed that the community alerts had been replaced by something queasier: official-sounding, passive-voice reports from law enforcement agencies (though the app, until recently, did not clarify from whom—police, medical, fire—they actually came): “A burglary has been reported … ” “There are reports of a residential fire.” Amazon bought the app at the beginning of the year to add to its suite of digital home takeovers, and thus Ring had been expanded to include the Neighbors app, a platform in which anyone, with a Ring bell or without, could add to the calumnies of their block by posting photos and videos of suspicious activity.

It’s embarrassing and dangerous to know something is bad and still give in to the dopamine loops offered by the swipe and tap of security. Ring offers quite a proposition: You may not be able to control all the things that swim into your ken. But would you settle for simply seeing them? I’d like to think I wasn’t at fault because I never filed some wild, unfounded alert with the app. But I still fell for it. I had the device. I participated in the bougie, privileged circle casting kneejerk suspicion on others with minimal information to justify it.

After all this, the damn Ring box is still next to my door. Duller, weakened, set up to just be a digital peephole with a doorbell. I keep telling myself I’m going to take it out of our lives with a claw hammer and some digital scrubbing. But I haven’t yet. It’s still there, waiting for a mail carrier or a kid walking home from school or someone setting out on a late-night stroll, its unblinking eye lurking, ready to twist any sign of life into an alarm.