Ding-dong, your doorbell is looking a bit creepy.
Ring video doorbells, Nest Hello and other connected security cameras are the fastest-growing home improvement gadgets since garage door openers. These cameras, often built into buzzers, alert your phone when someone is at your door and save footage online. Mine has helped me get deliveries and catch porch pirates stealing packages. Earlier this month, one caught a man licking a family’s doorbell for three hours.
What’s not to love? Invading people’s privacy – and Big Brother at our doorstep. It’s up to us to set the rules to avoid Big Doorbell.
We’re on a slippery slope. You’ve got a legal right to film in public places, including your entryway. There’s little agreement whether private cameras slash crime rates, yet police are setting up voluntary registries for private cameras in dozens of communities. Cities such as Washington, D.C., have begun paying up to $500 for cameras on private property. Detroit is going further: Its mayor wants to mandate security cameras at businesses open late, with a live feed going straight to police.
Meanwhile, Ring’s owner Amazon.com filed an eerily specific patent to put its controversial Rekognition facial-identification software into doorbells. The purpose: to automatically flag “suspicious” people. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.)
We should recognize this pattern: Tech that seems like an obvious good can develop darker dimensions as capabilities improve and data shifts into new hands. A terms-of-service update, a face-recognition upgrade or a hack could turn your doorbell into a privacy invasion you didn’t see coming.
Last month, Ring got caught allowing its team in Ukraine to view and annotate certain user videos; the company says it only looks at publicly shared videos and those from Ring owners who provide consent. Just last week, a California family’s Nest camera let a hacker take over and broadcast fake audio warnings about a missile attack, not to mention peer in on them, when they used a weak password.
In the future, what if your doorbell misidentified someone as a crime suspect? What if it logs a “dreamer” – an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States as a child – visiting, or living in, your house? Your family and friends are the ones whom this tech surveils the most.
Okay, Big Doorbell hasn’t yet evolved to the point where police are peering through live to see who’s coming over for dinner. But we probably don’t want to build that, either.
How do we stop a potential civil liberties nightmare? By talking about ethics now.