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Dystopian doorbells: are security devices like Ring and Nest creating mass surveillance networks?

·5-min read
 (ES)
(ES)

Are doorbells listening to our conversations? This was the question US Senator Ed Markey had for Amazon bosses recently, as he urged the tech giant to address major privacy concerns over its popular video security device, Ring.

Rapid advances in home technology have turned the humble door buzzer into something increasingly dystopian. Despite being not much bigger than a matchbox, doorbell cameras are sophisticated security systems, with high-definition night-vision cameras and microphones that can pick up audio from up to 25 feet away.

Their use is increasingly widespread, with the five leading brands including Amazon Ring and Google Nest clocking up 3.5 million sales globally in 2021. Even George Orwell’s former home in west London boasts a Ring doorbell, an irony enjoyed on Twitter when it was spotted earlier this year.

But their popularity is a concern for privacy campaigners, who have warned for years that doorbell cameras are placing entire neighbourhoods under mass surveillance.

Ray Walsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, says the devices can create a “sweeping surveillance nexus in which residents can no longer leave their homes and move around their neighbourhood without fear of being tracked.”

After a series of controversies over Ring cameras, including reports of staff listening in to customers’ video feeds and concern over the gadget’s ties with law enforcement in the US and the UK, Amazon has tightened the rules. But does this go far enough?

How video doorbells work

Amazon’s Ring cameras, which start at £89.99, send you an “instant notification” via the app when someone presses the button, or triggers its motion sensor. The camera allows users to view a live stream of who is at the door and talk to them remotely.

In the US, users can also download Ring’s Neighbors app, a hyper-local neighbourhood watch service that allows users to report alleged criminal activity within a five-mile radius.

Some video doorbells, like Ring and Google Nest Hello, let you store videos via encrypted cloud subscription services.

Doorbells without cloud subscriptions, such as devices made by Eufy, have built-in storage and are seen as less vulnerable to hackers.

Privacy breaches

A study by US magazine Consumer Reports found that Ring devices can record audio from 20 feet away, even capturing conversations between passers-by. Citing the research, Senator Markey told Amazon he was troubled by the company’s “invasive data collection”, adding “the public’s right to assemble, move, and converse without being tracked is at risk”.

In 2021, a plumber from Leeds was fined £100,000 after a court ruled his network of doorbell cameras breached privacy laws.

In the wake of the ruling, Amazon urged users to respect their neighbours’ privacy and has since introduced end-to-end encryption for Ring footage as an “opt-in”. It says this adds additional layers of protection to recordings and means that video feeds will only be viewable on the user’s phone, and it can’t access them.

However Nuno Guerreiro de Sousa, technologist at Privacy International, said it far from solves the core privacy issues with video doorbells, adding: “Sensor-activated video and audio recordings continue to have disturbing implications for anyone walking past.”

How police forces use the footage

Doorbell footage is already being used by police in the UK to fight house burglaries or as evidence in trials.

In 2019, it emerged that four police forces had partnerships with Ring and were distributing doorbells, while the Met had a £243,000 deal to deploy 1,000 devices in crime hotspots.

In the US, where Ring has reportedly partnered with more than 2,000 police and fire departments, critics such as Senator Markey say the surveillance is contributing to “invasive policing”.

A spokesperson for Ring said it currently did not have any partnerships with UK police and that it does not give forces access to cameras or live streams. They said customers with the Ring Protect Plan can choose to share footage with police, and added: “Customers are in total control of the information they choose to share.”

In response to concerns raised by ProPrivacy and Privacy International, Ring said: “We’re committed to developing and offering our customers features that empower them to protect their accounts and information, and respect the privacy of others.”

What can you do legally with your doorbell footage?

  • Some doorbells allow you to save recordings onto your computer or create links to share footage

  • You can share footage on the web

  • According to Ring, nobody can view your video recordings unless you allow it or you share them, but some users have reported hacks. The company says it has taken measures to help make devices secure

  • Police forces can request footage from you. If you refuse, they can issue a warrant or in some cases bypass you to submit a request directly to the doorbell manufacturer

  • Amazon says it will not disclose Ring footage unless “necessary to comply with the law”, and Google says it reviews all requests carefully and only provides information within the scope of the request

  • Video doorbell owners must be careful not to place their cameras in areas where they might breach neighbours’ privacy. Any footage detected outside of your property is likely to breach UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws

  • The advice is to avoid including neighbouring homes, driveways or gardens in your motion detection zone

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