Is Nextdoor just a surveillance tool?

Emma McGowan 2 Jun 2021

The hyperlocal social media site Nextdoor was created to connect neighbors. But is it actually spying on people while they spy on each other?

Thinking about the hyperlocal social media app Nextdoor, I can’t get that Rockwell/Michael Jackson song out of my head. You know the one: “I always feel like/Somebody’s watching meeeeeee.” That’s because if you’re on Nextdoor, you know that most of it is neighbors ratting each other out for perceived antisocial behavior at best, and criminal activity at worst.

Nextdoor was founded in 2011 with the goal of connecting neighbors. It’s a righteous and somewhat meta goal: We’re all online more than ever, which means we might not know our neighbors, which means maybe we need to go online for that too. And while the site is undeniably a great resource for buying second hand goods in your neighborhood or connecting with events in your area, there’s no way to deny that much of Nextdoor is just the newest iteration of nosy Neighborhood Watch groups. 

Which is all really to say that Nextdoor, like so many tech companies, has had intended and unintended effects. And when it comes to privacy, it’s especially interesting because we’re talking not only about digital privacy, but physical privacy as well. What happens when what the internet knows about me is also what my community knows about me? Let’s take a closer look.

What does Nextdoor track?

Because Nextdoor requires a verified address in order to access your neighborhood portal, they know your address. They also know your name and anything you post on the site itself, including your profile information. They’re pretty good about letting people choose what information they want to include in their profile and what they’d like to leave out. 

Nextdoor is explicitly an advertisement-supported business, like Facebook. That means it’s “free,” but I pay for the right to access it with my data. According to their Privacy Policy, they collect information about what ads I click on, track me with cookies, take into account what I search for, and compile it with data brokers to serve me personalized ads. They also use pixels, SDKs, and other tracking and storage tools to spy on me. 

If I were in Europe or the UK and protected by the GDPR, all of that would also be the case and I’d be covered by the additional rights provided by the GDPR, including the rights to request, review, and delete all data. Because I do live in California, I have very similar, if not exactly the same, rights when it comes to data privacy under the CCPA.

What does Nextdoor do with my data? 

Nextdoor uses my data to provide the services I signed up for — namely, spying on my neighbors and connecting in less creepy ways. And they sell it to advertisers to serve me ads. 

Is Nextdoor just a surveillance tool?

Nextdoor used to have a Forward to Police feature that let users contact law enforcement in their area directly from the platform or app. But with the New Civil Rights movement that started in June 2020, they reassessed whether or not that feature was really serving their community and decided that it was probably doing more harm than good. It was removed that month. 

But while a direct line to police isn’t there anymore, its existence in the first place brings up the issue of neighbors “spying” and reporting on each other. Ultimately, Nextdoor is most often used as a neighborhood surveillance tool — and most of the “connecting” happens over people reporting crimes or perceived crimes. That includes sharing Ring or other video doorbell footage of crimes being committed, including detailed descriptions of the person committing the crime and images of their face, if they have them. 

The site has also struggled since its inception with both overt and unconscious racism and bias, problems that aren’t of their own making but of which they are at risk of perpetuating in broader society. Because, really, if your goal is connecting neighbors and the neighborhood is racist — then won’t people on the platform in that neighborhood act in racist ways? (That’s not to say I’m condoning racism, of course. I’m simply saying that navigating the issues is difficult from a social media platform point of view.) It’s a complicated, thorny issue and one that I give them credit for trying to tackle.

What do I get in exchange for my data? What are the tradeoffs?

I like using Nextdoor to find secondhand furniture and, when I’m bored, to peek into the lives of the people who live around me. I’m a nosy person by nature — it’s probably like 80 percent of my motivation for being a writer — and Nextdoor can be an interesting view into the lives of other people.

But unlike other social media, Nextdoor doesn’t feel as sticky to me. I get bored pretty quickly and hop back over to traditional social media, like Twitter or Instagram. It’s a low impact site in my life. Considering that fact — and considering the fact that it appears that they’re collecting and sharing as much information about me as they can — I’m going to delete my Nextdoor account and request that they delete my data. There’s no room in my life anymore for companies that give me little and take a lot — and it appears that’s exactly what Nextdoor does. 


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