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Smart-Home Cameras Are Great for Spying on Pets and Making Guests Feel Uncomfortable

Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/SelectAll; FreeSoulProduction/Getty Images

My fiancé and I unboxed our newly acquired Yi Dome — a budget-friendly smart camera from Yi Technology — and set it on the bookshelf in our tiny living room. We turned it on and it hummed mechanically as it pivoted, searching the room until it found movement: us, on the couch, looking at the surprisingly high-fidelity footage from the associated Yi Home app on my phone.

“Creepy,” Chris said, watching us watch it.

It was a bit. But we kept the Yi Dome, though we’d never been in the market for a security camera in the first place. It came into our lives as a gift from Chris’s parents, who suggested we use it to keep tabs on our cat, Harpo, during the day. We hadn’t thought it was needed, per se, but it became an opportunity.

With the Yi Dome, we peeked in on Harpo doing cute cat stuff whenever we felt like it. He’d be lounging beneath the coffee table, napping on the couch, stuffing himself in a too small box — we kept a mental list of the best moments we captured, sharing them as bullet points in the summaries of our days. Look at Harpo, Chris texted me once while we were both at work. I opened the app and saw the cat sitting right in front of the camera, his big, fuzzy head filling the frame.

When I talked with friends and fellow smart-camera-havers, I noticed a trend. New parents, first-time homeowners — many had gotten their smart camera to ease the transition into the anxious void of emerging adulthood. Whether it was looking in on a sleeping baby or confirming that, yes, the dog did get on the coffee table as soon as you left the house, the camera offered the peace of mind that only knowing for sure provides.

“I caught one package thief and discovered everyone’s favorite places to pee,” said one friend, whose camera is positioned outside his Boston-area home. Beyond that, none of the people I spoke with reported having seen anything other than what might qualify as “mischief.” A supposedly napping child tossing his toys around the room, a snapshot of the surprised dog walker who’d forgotten to disable the alarm — watchfulness, most often, revealed the mundane or moderately amusing rather than the criminal. If this was Rear Window, it turns out that our lives are more like the girl doing high kicks in her apartment than the possible murder. Still, almost everyone I asked expressed an unabashed love for their camera: It made them feel safer. Except for my friend who, of the lawn pee-ers, added, “I almost wish I didn’t know.”

Chris and I kept using the Yi Dome, keeping tabs on our extremely adorable cat. But the camera came with some baggage. We worried our building maintenance man, coming to fix a problem in our apartment, might think we were spying on him. A guest wondered first what the Yi Dome was, and then if it was recording us all right then. Was it okay for one of us to use the camera to look in on the other person at home? No, we agreed, that’s weird. We decided that when we weren’t actively using the Yi Dome, we’d pivot the camera so that it pointed into the bookshelf.

Surveillance is about establishing authority. People being watched no longer have complete agency, and it tends to take advantage of already marginalized groups. Perpetuating the status quo comes at this expense: It fuels existing power. But it’s comforting when the power is in our hands — when we can know at an instant what our babysitters are doing or if the kitchen-renovation guys are at the door — and we try not to think about it otherwise.

“When we’re traveling, we check in sometimes just to see the weather,” said another friend of his doorbell camera. As much as we want to survey what’s going on, we also want the reassurance that everything is fine without us, too. It rains, the baby goes back to sleep, the cat is in his basket, someone passes by with or without peeing in the yard. We don’t need to be there for any of these things to occur — so should we be?

A few weeks after we got the Yi Dome, I went to Asia on an almost monthlong work trip. Toward the end, I was lying in bed in my hotel room, missing my person-and-cat family. I figured it was plausible they had recently woken up — and then I thought of the camera. I could be with them, right now, all the way from the other side of the world. So, I opened up the Yi Home app and watched all our books go by as the camera turned itself to face the rest of the room.

I was blatantly breaking our smart-camera rules and instantly felt like a creep. Chris and Harpo were both on the couch, the cat tucked beside Chris’s arm getting some primo tummy pets and Chris on his phone, reading something. It wasn’t shocking or abnormal, but it was obviously private — a sweet domestic moment that I had intruded upon from 9,000 miles away.

“Hi guys,” I said through the camera, surprising both person and cat.

The video lagged. I heard Chris laugh, but the picture was still of him just a second before, not laughing yet.

“How are you doing?” he asked, his voice and his face still mismatched. He was looking into the camera. I hoped it would feel like he was looking at me.

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