A Black Woman Invented Home Security. Why Did It Go So Wrong?
THERE’S A WELL-KNOWN story among surveillance studies scholars and students of Black innovation: that of Marie Van Brittan Brown, a Black woman from Jamaica, Queens, New York who is now recognized as having invented the home security system in 1966. Brown worked long hours as a nurse and often came home late at night. Her husband also worked “irregular hours,” and Brown worried about who might knock on her door if she were home alone at night. Similar versions of Brown’s story can be found at the MIT Lemelson Center and all around the internet, including on Wikipedia, the African American history site Blackpast, and the history site Timeline. It’s understandable that attention would be paid to Brown’s pioneering work as a Black woman inventor whose contribution has rightly been cited in the development of subsequent home security systems and as the origin point for a massive industry.
Brown’s inventor origin story is quite different from that of a similar technology’s creator—Jamie Siminoff, founder of DoorBot, which eventually became the Ring Doorbell. Siminoff started DoorBot in a garage in 2012, after he grew annoyed by people constantly ringing his doorbell. “I was like, how the fuck can there not be a doorbell that goes to your phone?” Siminoff told Digital Trends. As Caroline Haskins wrote in Vice, “DoorBot was thus posed as an answer to a question perhaps only he had ever asked.” Indeed, Brown’s patent is cited in Siminoff’s patent.
A Black woman who feared for her safety creates a system. A white guy develops an iteration of this system later because he is annoyed that people are ringing his doorbell too often. This becomes a tool to manage Amazon’s loss prevention. Eventually, it leads to a boom not only in home security products like the Amazon suite and Google’s security cameras, along with a variety of others, but increasing measures to make the home, the neighborhood, and all public and private spaces a 24/7 watched fortress, complete with cameras, drones, security robots, and automated license plate readers. But amid this escalation, one urgent question arises: What are we defending ourselves against?
While the progression from Brown’s invention to Siminoff’s may seem unlikely or even paradoxical, it isn’t: Surveillance technology always “finds its level.” Its gaze is always going to wind up focused on Black folks—even if that was not the “intent” of the inventor. Surveillance, first and foremost, performs a carceral function by attempting the capture and control of marginalized populations. That it may serve additional functions is somewhat beside the point. Surveillance systems, no matter their origin, will always exist to serve power.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, at Amazon’s annual device launch, the company focused on how it would like us to think about security. A security robot named Astro, essentially a roving Alexa with a camera and big “eyes” to enhance the sense of “cuteness,” will roll around your house and scan the faces of people in your home. A security drone will fly around the house in a predetermined path. This is alongside a host of other initiatives built on existing products: Ring Alarm Pro, Ring Always Home Cam, Virtual Security Guard. Safety, Amazon would have us believe, comes in the form of cameras, or to be more precise, cameras everywhere pointed at everything all the time.
THERE’S A WELL-KNOWN story among surveillance studies scholars and students of Black innovation: that of Marie Van Brittan Brown, a Black woman from Jamaica, Queens, New York who is now recognized as having invented the home security system in 1966. Brown worked long hours as a nurse and often came home late at night. Her…