Smart doorbells vulnerable to abuse, invasion of privacy

By Kyra Sadovi, Columnist

The popularity of smart doorbells does not bode well for our privacy. These devices act like doorbells: They’re placed on the doorframe in front of the house where any other bell would be. But these gadgets come equipped with cameras and contact their owners’ smartphones to alert them when someone is at their door. That camera can be used for more than checking the stoop for packages. It can record people on the front steps or even on the street. Without proper regulation, those videos can be used by law enforcement to follow and monitor individuals without their consent.

Last week, I wrote about the implications of the proliferation of smart doorbells like Google’s Nest or Amazon’s Ring. These devices encourage civilian vigilantism, which breeds racial profiling and intra-community conflict. This week, I turn to the very real privacy challenges posed by home security systems.

The old adage is true with great power comes great responsibility. Access to live footage of consumers’ homes, once thought a safe space, is a kind of power not seen outside sci-fi novels. Amazon, producer of Ring, is a self-proclaimed privacy enthusiast. Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO, has called the “debate between privacy and security the ‘issue of our age.’”

But Amazon has submitted a patent application for Rekognition, facial recognition software that could be installed in doorbells a huge blow to the “privacy” side of that debate. Facial recognition software in these doorbells allows monitors to identify exactly who is entering or leaving a house. Facial recognition is a superpower. Should that power fall into the wrong hands (or go unregulated), the public will pay the price.

The most concerning part of the patent is the fact it describes the software as a possible boon for law enforcement. The entire explanation of the technology is aimed at facilitating “positive identification of criminal perpetrators, thereby … making it easier for law enforcement to identify, apprehend and convict the criminal perpetrator.” The language goes on to describe the potential use of this technology by law enforcement to create a database of “suspicious” people.

This kind of relationship between law enforcement and Amazon surveillance data isn’t hypothetical — connections between the two already exist. The Houston Police Department announced in January it would be working with Ring’s social networking app, Neighbors, to better communicate with residents during the perpetration of a crime. The app, the department said, will bolster its ability to keep communities safe. But the HPD also noted the partnership will allow it to “request information about local crime and safety from neighbors who opt in to sharing for a particular request.” As the relationship is still in its early stages, exactly what information will be shared has yet to be seen. But the department’s very presence on Neighbors gives it access to videos recorded and posted by Ring users. It’s not unreasonable to think that might lead to police monitoring “suspicious” individuals’ movements from house to house using Rekognition.

The inevitable response from security companies to privacy concerns like these is tech like smart doorbells doesn’t alter the law it just executes existing law in a more efficient way. Even so, you have nothing to worry about if you’re a law-abiding citizen. Right?

Well, not quite. The reality is the law is constantly changing. That means a police department’s reasons for the use of software like Rekognition could change. Today, the police may want to use your footage because it captured a break-in across the street. But what if a friend who visited your house is a Dreamer, a person brought to the U.S. by undocumented parents as a child? Dreamers, or individuals sponsored under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, are legal U.S. residents on the path toward citizenship as of this month. But given a change in immigration law not outside the realm of possibility considering the government’s current animosity toward migrants from the southern border law enforcement could use the video to track the movements of Dreamers across the country. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has already been getting help from companies like Amazon to surveil immigrants. Smart doorbells could make its monitoring systems even stronger. Like I noted last week, “suspicious” has become synonymous with “not from here” and the parameters of “here” are vulnerable to drastic change given an administration inclined to place increasingly draconian restrictions on citizenship.

Beyond law enforcement’s use of smart doorbell footage, the upkeep and maintenance of the recordings is another privacy concern. After all, these videos have to be stored somewhere. Ring has come under criticism for providing its employees with too much access to footage. Early this year, Ring’s offices in Ukraine allowed its employees people, not algorithms to view and manually analyze video recorded on doorbells across the country without the knowledge or consent of Ring consumers. This was all in an attempt to bolster its struggling object identification software.

In the Ukraine case, Ring was trying to use private recordings to improve its product, thereby increasing its market value. But what if Amazon, Ring’s parent company, decides to monitor the kinds of products you bring into your house or the ages of your children and their favorite toys? If the maintenance of its footage and information is shoddy, one hacker could ruin a Ring owner’s life.

In fact, hacking a doorbell is now not out of the question. Ring dealt with a security flaw last year which allowed users to remain logged in to an account after the password had changed meaning an ex-boyfriend could spy on a Ring owner. It’s this kind of misconduct that best exemplifies a paradoxical kind of abuse of smart doorbells: Law enforcement agencies have too much access to our comings and goings and criminals do, too.

At the end of the day, smart doorbells are more trouble than they’re worth. They allow too much personal information to be collected and stored in one place, making it easy for criminals to monitor residents or steal their identities. That same ease of access to stored information allows law enforcement to keep tabs on residents, which, unregulated, could result in a reality dangerously close to a surveillance state.

All of this personal information is made vulnerable for the sake of decreasing crime but it has yet to be proven smart doorbells even do that. While we haven’t yet seen the rise of Big Doorbell, allowing ourselves to become numbed to everyday surveillance will lead to very big problems. It’s unrealistic to expect people to stop buying these devices. But we can, at the very least, be wary of what they can do to our communities, our law enforcement agencies and ourselves.

Kyra is a sophomore in LAS.

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