Prison Tech Comes Home: Tenants and Residents in the Surveillance StateRoundup
tags: technology, inequality, criminal justice, surveillance, Incarceration, artificial intelligence, policing, eviction
Erin McElroy is an incoming assistant professor of American studies and digital studies at the University of Texas at Austin, coming from a postdoctoral researcher position at New York University’s AI Now Institute, where they launched Landlord Tech Watch. McElroy is also cofounder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and the Radical Housing Journal.
Meredith Whittaker is the faculty director of the AI Now Institute at New York University, where she’s the Minderoo Research Professor. Her work focuses on the social implications of artificial intelligence and the tech industry responsible for it.
Nicole E. Weber is a PhD candidate at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and a research assistant at the AI Now Institute at New York University. Her research examines the social and cultural implications of digital media and technologies.
Throughout the pandemic, new surveillance systems—used by landlords, educational institutions, and employers—have converged, capturing new forms of data and exerting new forms of control in domestic spaces. COVID-19 prompted bosses and schools to accelerate the deployment of surveillance and tracking systems. As the pandemic drags on, many are still monitoring and assessing remote learners and workers in their most intimate environments. Landlords, meanwhile, took the pandemic as a time to promise “touchless” convenience and increased control over the homes of their tenants, rushing to install tracking systems in renters’ homes. Whatever the marketing promises, ultimately landlords’, bosses’, and schools’ intrusion of surveillance technologies into the home extends the carceral state into domestic spaces. In doing so, it also reveals the mutability of surveillance and assessment technologies, and the way the same systems can play many roles, while ultimately serving the powerful.
Abolitionist organizers and scholars have long demonstrated the ways in which the carceral state exists well beyond prisons, jails, and police. As Michelle Alexander reminds us in her foreword to the excellent book Prison by Any Other Name, “‘Mass incarceration’ should be understood to encompass all versions of racial and social control wherever they can be found, including prisons, jails, schools, forced ‘treatment’ centers, and immigrant detention centers, as well as homes and neighborhoods converted to digital prisons.”1
This abolitionist frame helps us understand the means by which surveillance and tracking technologies serve to transform renters’, students’, and workers’ homes into a form of “digital prison,” subjecting domestic spaces to control, punishment, and persistent intrusion. While we in no way wish to collapse the meaningful differences between the brutal caging of human beings in jails and prisons with comfortable-but-surveilled living spaces, we believe that examining the continuum between the two is imperative for understanding how the carceral state leverages computational technologies of surveillance and control to extend beyond the punishing walls of the prison. This allows us to better apply abolitionist frameworks in the process of mapping these new and often subtle manifestations of the carceral state, especially within the racist housing landscape marked by unprecedented renter debt and an impending wave of evictions. It also enables us to consider alternative futures, encouraging us to imagine a world not built on punishment, but instead on systems of mutual aid and caring justice.
In the wake of the 2007–10 subprime mortgage crisis, the real estate industry began investing heavily in what it calls “proptech,” or property technology. This industry-crafted market, which is not always visible to renters or the public, includes the platforms, software, hardware, and data-collection systems used by speculators, landlords, and developers to increase control over tenants, as well as to extract more profit from real estate.
Following many discussions with tenants and housing-justice organizers, we made a conscious decision to use the term “landlord tech” instead of “proptech.” In making this choice, we sought to more clearly signal whose interests are served in deploying surveillance and tracking in domestic spaces, and to pick a term more descriptive to tenants unexposed to insider industry jargon.
While the investment in landlord tech spiked after 2008, this is not where the intersection of residential surveillance and carceral tech begins. Prior to contemporary forms of high-tech tenant screening, lower-tech assessment systems had long been used to exclude people with criminal records and to make finding shelter difficult (if not impossible) for those recently decarcerated. Tenant screening emerged in the 1970s, when landlords gained access to eviction records, allowing them to blacklist tenants who’d been previously displaced and to prevent them from securing new housing. It was also during this time that landlords began using CCTV cameras to monitor building common spaces, a racialized practice that has dramatically expanded in contexts of public, low-income, and affordable-housing complexes.
The landlord-tech industry grew in the wake of 9/11, particularly in the realm of tenant screening, and ballooned following the subprime crisis, which also saw a boom in corporate landlordism more broadly. Wall Street investment firms such as Blackstone swallowed up huge swaths of foreclosed single-family homes, which saw Black people and people of color bearing the costs of risky subprime financial instruments, while the institutions that created these received bailouts, and, in the case of companies like Blackstone, richly benefitted from this racist displacement. With consolidated ownership came the need for new systems to manage thousands of properties, remotely and at scale. Landlord tech provided the perfect solution for corporate landlords, offering online and app-based systems for rental payment, utility monitoring, building access, and eviction automation. In the realm of public and low-income housing, landlords even began adding biometric facial-recognition cameras to already invasive CCTV monitoring systems—many of which have direct lines to law enforcement.
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