10 ways doorbell cameras pose a threat to privacy and security
Doorbell cameras like Ring and Nest are one of the latest developments in the ever-expanding world of smart devices. Small recording devices peer out of people’s doorways and monitor at all times. Motion sensors scan to see if anyone is approaching the home, and log every time someone presses the buzzer.
Of course, the companies that sell these devices claim that they play an important role in home security. But others are much more skeptical. They claim that the systems exploit a growing social paranoia, that their surveillance is an attack on people’s privacy, and that the practices of these big tech companies are anything but credible. Here are ten ways they can threaten your security.
Related: Top 10 Times Alexa Went Rogue
10 Big Business collects your data
It’s no secret that most, if not all, major tech companies are constantly harvesting people’s data. There is big money to be made from tracking all of our personal information. Social media, streaming services, messaging services, they’re all up and running. And doorbell cameras are no different.
So exactly what information do these devices have access to, and how much do they store? Well, there’s a lot more to it than many users realize. Let’s take Amazon’s Ring, for example. It’s the usual stuff like name, address, payment information and Wi-Fi access. But there is doorbell activity too. Following a BBC information request, Ring revealed that they keep a record of each time the watch is pressed. When the camera detects motion or a user zooms in on the footage, they log that too.
But what about the privacy of people passing by? That’s where it gets more difficult, but also arguably creepier. The devices don’t always film, but they can be triggered by movement up to 7.5 meters away. This means that anyone who walks by and has a conversation can be recorded without knowing it, and Ring will then have access to all these recordings. Testing off Consumer Reports showed that Ring devices can pick up sound from a distance of 20 feet (6.1 meters).
“Ring affects everyone’s privacy,” explains Matthew Guariglia of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “Most immediately, it affects the people who walk down the streets every day, where the cameras are pointing.”
9 Hackers issue threats and racist abuse
In December 2020, dozens of Ring users filed lawsuits after their devices were hacked. They say a lack of security left them open to blackmail, death threats and racist abuse.
There are many examples of hackers infiltrating smart doorbells to harass or scare people. One user, a vulnerable elderly woman, heard a voice telling her: “Tonight you die”, and was sexually assaulted. She had been in an assisted living home at the time. Her family had bought the smart camera to keep an eye on her. But the incident made her feel too unsafe to stay there. In another case, a mother claims hackers played music from the horror film Sneak to frighten her children.
The case includes complaints from more than 15 families, all of whom have similar experiences. They claim that Ring “blamed the victims and offered inadequate answers and false explanations.”
8 LA police are violating the right to protest
In 2020, a wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept across the United States following the killing of George Floyd. The movement drew a range of reactions, from vocal support to fierce criticism, as did the police. But in the aftermath, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) faced particular criticism from privacy advocates, who accused the force of using doorbell camera footage to crack down on people’s right to protest.
The EFF filed the claims against the LAPD in February 2021. Following the protests, police contacted residents and businesses asking if they would share footage to help them investigate alleged crimes. A spokesperson described their actions as “not unusual”. But the EFF claims that this surveillance is an attack on the privacy of the protesters, the majority of whom were acting peacefully and within the law.
7 Call employees get access to private videos
In January 2020, Amazon’s Ring once against found itself at the center of controversy when it emerged that employees had access to users’ private videos. Five Democratic senators contacted CEO Jeff Bezos a few months ago to ask about the company’s security practices. They asked various questions about the customers’ privacy, including why the staff at the office in Ukraine had access to customer records.
In their response, Ring admitted to investigating four employees for improperly accessing customers’ videos. Although the company found that the employees had a right to view the recordings, they “exceeded what was necessary for their job functions.” All four were fired.
6 Spying on delivery workers
The rise of doorbell cameras means delivery workers are now exposed to invasive surveillance of customers. That’s what the technology institute Data & Society says in its report “At the Digital Doorstep”. “The result,” the team goes on to say, “is a collision between the American ideas of private property and the business imperatives of doing a job.”
Delivery workers, says the institute, are one example of the ever-growing gaming economy. Workers are not hired as employees, but are treated as independent contractors. According to the delivery companies, this gives more flexibility and independence. But the institute claims otherwise. “These advertised benefits have hidden costs: drivers often have to compete for shifts, spend hours trying to recover lost wages, pay for vehicle wear and tear and have no control over where they work.”
The team says the reality on the ground is that delivery workers are being pressured to perform increasingly unsafe jobs in the name of productivity quotas. Smart doorbells, they found, only make this worse. According to their report, customers with video surveillance are more likely to report delivery drivers — either to tech firms or the police — or embarrass them by posting the footage online.
5 Violent customers open fire on innocent woman
Smart doorbells threaten the safety not only of customers, but also of passers-by. This applies in particular if the user happens to be exposed to extreme and unjustified violence.
In October 2022, a Florida man received someone else’s medication that was sent to the wrong address. So he went to Gino and Rocky Colonacosta’s apartment and dropped the prescription at their front door. This triggered an alert from the video camera on their phones. The response from the Colonacostas was, in the words of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, “crazy.”
The pair, armed with .45-caliber handguns, exited the apartment and began looking for an intruder. What they found was a woman sitting in a nearby car checking her phone. Gino, 73, pointed his gun at the vehicle and told the woman to get out, as she drove off in a panic. The father and son opened fire on the fleeing woman, firing seven shots at the car. “Our victim was so close to death,” Polk told reporters, “And certainly, had there been a baby in the car seat, the baby would have been killed.”
4 Software issue leaves doorbell recordings vulnerable
Google Nest encompasses a range of smart products and devices, including doorbell cameras. In 2020, a user looked at her central Nest Hub and saw camera footage from a front door. The only problem was she didn’t have a smart doorbell and the screen porch was a stranger.
Yes, a software issue accidentally gave the Nest user access to another person’s doorbell feed. Her husband posted about it on Reddit, asking if anyone knew whose Nest system it was that they had suddenly gained such intrusive insight into. As you can imagine, many of the commenters were worried and confused. Another Reddit user, believed to be a Google employee, agreed to fix the problem. But beyond that, the company did not make any statement about the error.
3 Woman sues neighbor for breach of privacy
A man in Britain may have to pay 100,000 pounds ($120,000) to his neighbor after a judge found his smart doorbell was too intrusive and violated his neighbor’s privacy.
John Woodward, a 45-year-old audiovisual technician living in Oxfordshire, first got the device in 2019. His car was almost stolen and he wanted to increase security around his house. However, his neighbor, Doctor Fairnhurst, claimed otherwise. She said the doorbell camera put her under surveillance, filming and recording audio from her house, yard and parking lot.
And in 2021, when the case came to court, the judge agreed. Melissa Clarke found that Mr Woodward had breached several UK laws, including the Data Protection Act 2018, the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Common Information Coverage Law.
2 Ring App raises concerns
We’re back with the Electronic Frontier Foundation for this next entry. Along with their report on privacy for delivery workers, in January 2020, the group took issue with the Ring for Android app, which it says can monitor users.
An investigation revealed that the app often shares personal user information with third-party trackers. This includes names, IP addresses, mobile network operators and sensor data. They explained that although many apps share data, Ring stood above the rest for the number of trackers. Ring was also accused of underestimating the level of data collection on its website.
“Ring claims to prioritize the security and privacy of its customers, but time and again we’ve seen these claims not only fall short, but harm the customers and community members who engage with Ring’s monitoring system,” said Bill Budington, who wrote the report to the doorbell app.
1 Share private information with the police
Perhaps the most controversial news story that has emerged in recent years about Ring is about sharing footage with the police. In the first half of 2022, the company allowed authorities to view at least 11 recordings without the owners’ permission.
The information came to light after Senator Ed Markey raised concerns about Ring’s surveillance practices. As the company explains, police cannot access footage unless the clips are posted publicly or shared directly with them. The letter to Senator Markey was the first confirmation that Ring shares information without users’ consent.
Amazon emphasizes that it only shares footage without a warrant in emergencies to prevent death or serious physical injury. They say they only intervene in cases such as kidnappings or attempted murders. However, privacy advocates are disgusted by the revelations, with some going so far as to accuse the company of creating a civilian surveillance network.