Dystopian Doorbells: From Humble Buzzer to Mass Surveillance Device


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

Rapid advances in home technology have transformed the humble doorbell into something increasingly dystopian. Although not much larger than a matchbox, doorbell cameras are sophisticated security systems, with high-definition night vision cameras and microphones that can pick up sound up to 25 feet away. distance.

Their use is increasingly widespread, with the top five brands including Amazon Ring and Google Nest recording 3.5 million sales worldwide in 2021. Even George Orwell’s former home in west London has a Ring doorbell, a popular irony on Twitter when it was spotted earlier this year.

But their popularity is of concern to privacy activists, who have warned for years that doorbell cameras are placing entire neighborhoods under mass surveillance.

Ray Walsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, says the devices can create an “extensive surveillance bond where residents can no longer leave their homes and move around their neighborhoods without fear of being tracked.”

After a series of Ring camera controversies, including reports that staff are listening to customers’ video feeds and concerns about the gadget’s ties to law enforcement in the US and UK, Amazon tightened the rules. But does it 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 their motion sensor. The camera allows users to see live who is at the door and talk to them remotely.

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

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

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

Privacy Breaches

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

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

Following the ruling, Amazon urged users to respect the privacy of their neighbors and has since introduced end-to-end encryption for Ring footage as an “opt-in”. He says this adds extra layers of protection to the recordings and means the video streams will only be visible on the user’s phone and they won’t be able to access them.

However, Nuno Guerreiro de Sousa, technologist at Privacy International, said this did not solve the main privacy issues with video doorbells, adding: “Sensor-activated video and audio recordings continue to have disturbing implications for anyone who passes before.”

How police forces use images

Doorbell images are already used by police in the UK to fight burglaries or as evidence in court cases.

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 to crime hotspots.

In the United States, where Ring is said to have partnered with more than 2,000 police and fire departments, critics such as Senator Markey say surveillance contributes to “invasive policing”.

A spokesperson for Ring said it currently has no partnership with UK police and does not allow forces access to cameras or live streams. They said customers on the Ring Protect Plan can choose to share images with the police, and added, “Customers are in complete control of the information they choose to share.”

In response to concerns raised by ProPrivacy and Privacy International, Ring said, “We are committed to developing and delivering features to our customers that help them protect their accounts and information, and respect the privacy of others.

What can you legally do with your doorbell images?

  • Some doorbells allow you to save recordings to your computer or create links to share footage
  • You can share images on the web
  • According to Ring, no one can see your video recordings unless you allow it or share it, but some users have reported hacks. The company says it has taken steps to help secure the devices
  • Police forces may ask you for images. 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 won’t release images of Ring unless they’re “necessary to comply with the law,” and Google says it considers all requests carefully and only provides information within the scope of Requirement.
  • Video doorbell owners should be careful not to place their cameras in areas where they could violate the privacy of neighbors. Any video detected outside your property may violate UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws
  • The advice is to avoid including neighboring houses, driveways or gardens in your motion detection zone.

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