Perhaps smart doorbell cameras should come with a warning label: purchase at your own privacy risk. Home security technology has generated high sales — and controversy — since Nest was acquired by Google in 2014. Privacy concerns have grown louder since Amazon purchased Ring in 2018 for $1 billion.
While the thought of tech companies surveilling your yard and neighborhood may seem inherently creepy, doorbell cameras make many consumers feel safer — which explains why the devices continue to fly off the shelves. Smart doorbell camera technology opens homeowners and their families up to a slew of new privacy risks, in part because of the data the cameras gather and redistribute.
Our survey asked Americans whether they knew their doorbell cameras were collecting data on them.
Our findings revealed:
Despite our results showing Americans’ discomfort with doorbell companies sharing data, popular doorbell companies such as Ring do just that. Read on to discover how doorbell cameras may be putting our privacy rights at risk, or jump to our infographic to learn more about how doorbell cameras collect data.
So why would 3.4 million Americans buy a surveillance product making headlines for controversial data-sharing practices in the first place? Our survey revealed it’s likely because Americans don’t understand how Internet-connected doorbell cameras actually work. We found 87% of Americans admitted that they either didn’t know or weren’t sure of how smart doorbell companies used the personal data collected from their front porch.
Doorbell cameras have capitalized on consumer fears, despite crime rates reaching historic lows. Ring’s marketing has encouraged neighbors to spy on each other (in exchange for free stuff) and has recently made headlines for partnering with 600 police departments across the country (and counting) to share information and video footage through its Neighbors app — no warrant required.
Smart doorbell cameras also come at a relatively low cost compared to home security systems. Doorbell camera installation starts at less than $200 and is an easy first step toward outfitting a home with other sensors to detect motion, window openings, or carbon monoxide. Once installed, you gain video access to your front porch from any location with Wi-Fi, and you can scare off porch pirates by yelling at them through your app — at least if you believe the Ring ads you see on TV. But whether or not this access is actually making Americans safer remains up for debate.
Would Americans be willing to buy a surveillance device if they knew it was spying on them? Our survey revealed that only 7% of Americans would purchase a doorbell camera if it were knowingly collecting and selling data on their families.
Yet on Halloween, Ring released said data as a marketing effort. The Instagram posts revealed how many doorbells were rung during trick-or-treating times across the country. It’s not the first time Ring touted its data collection practices: a similar promotion was done on Super Bowl Sunday. A watchdog report released in January 2020 revealed this data collection extends beyond marketing campaigns.
Despite consumer concerns, a report revealed popular doorbell camera companies are giving user data to third-party companies such as Facebook and Google. The Electronic Frontier Foundation uncovered in January 2020 that Ring, owned by Amazon, is sharing user data with five companies — yet only one of those five is listed in Ring’s privacy notice.
Sharing this user data is potentially dangerous because it provides trackers the ability to spy on what a user is doing in their digital life, and when — without explicit user consent. According to the EFF report, analytics and tracking companies can combine small bits of information together to form a unique picture of the user’s device. If this information is then misused or hacked, most of the time users have no way of even knowing or mitigating the damage.
You don’t need a tinfoil hat to believe that doorbell camera data is being mishandled — just turn on your favorite news channel. A Florida family experienced misuse first hand when the podcast NulledCast hacked their device and harassed them through the speakers in their home. Similar hacking incidents have taken place in Texas, Mississippi, and California. Further, Amazon admits to firing employees who were caught spying on customers using the Ring security cameras.
Despite the controversy, smart doorbell cameras aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, insurance companies are offering purchase incentives that could lower home insurance rates. That, combined with the security surveillance these devices offer, can make our lives more convenient. But it’s always a good idea to do some research and consider the pros and cons before installing new tech in your home.
Use our infographic below to learn more about how smart doorbell cameras collect and distribute data so you can be informed before you purchase. Remember to always research risks and follow the recommended security steps to keep you and your family safe.
This study was conducted for The Zebra using Google Surveys. The sample consisted of no fewer than 1,500 completed responses per question. Post-stratification weighting has been applied to ensure an accurate and reliable representation of the total population. This survey was conducted in January and February 2020.