Sean Moncrieff: Is it spying if I film you from my new doorbell?

Being monitored seems to be something we have all acquiesced to

Every day I get alerts when someone is at the door. Photograph: iStock

We used to have a doorbell. It came with the house. Only later did we realise that it was attached to the wall with Blu-tac. It regularly fell off. Postal workers, take-away deliverers and summons servers were reduced to hammering on the door. Eventually, it died altogether.

After much more door hammering, we got a new one. Eventually. To keep my mind off the drink, I had become mildly addicted to buying knock-off crap on the internet. Tee-shirts. Solar lights. A pen that looked suspiciously like a Mont Blanc but cost €3. When we bought a funky-looking fruit basket and realised that we would never buy enough fruit to fill it, I went online and bought some plastic fruit. The grapefruit looks like a human brain, but from a distance, it does the job. You can barely tell the difference between the plastic lemons and the one real lemon we currently own.

Anyway: having wasted money on everything else I could think of, I went doorbell shopping and soon became convinced that what we really needed was one of those video doorbell jobs: it’s plumbed into the Wi-Fi and you have an app so you can see who is outside your house, and talk to them, even if you’re thousands of miles away. Of course, there are many leading-brand pricey versions of this product, but I happily convinced myself that they are essentially all the same: probably all made in the same factory.

At first, I was taken with the novelty of it, but after a while it started to feel like spying

Herself had been doing a bit of sighing and eye-rolling about my crap-buying addiction, but was remarkably understanding when the cheapo video doorbell arrived and didn’t work. It didn’t ring, which is a pretty basic requirement, and the instructions were little more than a series of pictures depicting cartoon criminals along with declarations like: safe camera much good focus!


It sat on the shelf. People kept hammering on the door.

Oh, I was vexed: mostly with my own money-wasting stupidity but also, perversely, with Herself for being so nice about it. We both knew it was a matter of time. I’d huff for a bit, eventually throw it away and buy a proper one.

Which I did, and it works perfectly. Every day I get alerts when someone is at the door. I can watch if people enter and leave the house and listen to the conversations that take place there. At first, I was taken with the novelty of it, but after a while it started to feel like spying. There’s an option on the app where you get an alert when the camera detects motion: and on the default setting, that included cars or people walking by. If one of the neighbours was mowing their lawn, I got a ding on my phone.

To calm the concerns of any neighbours who might read this, I changed the settings so it only covers a piece of our front garden. Yet if I was weird (or even weirder than I am) or excessively nosey, I could have continued to film – and record – the comings and goings of anyone coming within a hundred meters of my house, and all without their knowledge or permission.

It is surveillance state technology that anyone can buy. The phrase 'surveillance state' does sound creepy and dystopian, and largely, it is. China has already installed hundreds of millions of cameras and uses facial recognition software that it exports to other authoritarian regimes. Parallel to that is a "social credit" system which encourages "good behaviour".

There is the argument that that a camera on every street corner is a help in public safety; or at least, it helps with the investigation of street crime. The evidence on that is mixed.

Either way, being daily tracked and monitored seems to be something that we have all acquiesced to, even if we didn’t realise it at the time. And we did it years ago: when we bought our first mobile phones.