More often than not, great convenience comes with great privacy implications.
New gadgets make excellent holiday gifts. They’re useful, oftentimes a little more expensive than most people are willing to pay on their own, and can be a lot of fun! But, unfortunately, many of this year’s hottest tech gadgets also come with a healthy dose of privacy violations. And, this year, one of the biggest culprits on those wishlists might be the Ring video doorbell from Amazon.
Video doorbells used to be a thing only rich people had — but not so in 2022. These days, you can buy an Amazon Ring doorbell for the low price of $59.99. The convenience of being able to see who’s at your door and even answer it from your phone — plus record if you want to — is very tempting for many homeowners. Plus, sixty bucks? That’s crazy affordable. Even the top end ones come in at $349.99, which isn’t pennies but certainly isn’t Bruce Wayne-level expensive, either.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time as a privacy and security advocate, it’s that with great convenience usually comes great privacy implications. And so while I don’t actually have a Ring myself (apartment living, y’all), I decided to take a closer look. Here’s what I found.
Ring is, first and foremost, a surveillance tool. It’s marketed as helping you surveil your surroundings, but don’t forget that it’s keeping track of you and your family as well. Ring — and Amazon, its parent company — knows your name, email, postal address, and phone number. It also knows the geolocation of your phone, information about your Wi-Fi network and signal strength, and your product’s model, serial number, and software version. If you use Facebook or another third-party login, it also can “obtain information” from that third party.
Finally, Ring videos and photos are stored on Amazon’s servers for up to 60 days.
If I lived in Europe and had a Ring, I could also potentially be liable to stay in compliance with the GDPR if the camera covered more than my own space. The law is still a little wobbly on this one, but there’s a possibility you’d have to inform passers-by that you’re recording and comply with any access requests.
Amazon will share information captured by your Ring with law enforcement when they’re compelled to do so. They also have created partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the US, allowing Ring customers to sign up to share their surveillance footage with the police. (And they often offer rebates to incentivize people to sign up for this registry.)
Ring already overtly collects a lot of information, but there are things they could figure out based on the content of your videos and photos. Things like: when you’re home, how many packages you get, information about your neighborhood and neighbors, etc.
And while there’s no evidence so far that Amazon is viewing those videos and photos, they do have access to them and could theoretically watch them. (In fact, Amazon let workers in the Ukraine annotate Ring videos without consent.) They also have demonstrated that they’re more than willing to comply with police: they reportedly complied with 57 percent of requests from law enforcement in 2020 and 68 percent in 2019, after Ring owners refused to give over footage themselves.
There are also reports that Amazon is testing out facial recognition technology on their Ring cameras, which opens up a whole other can of scary privacy concerns, especially when you take Amazon’s police partnerships into account. One only has to look to the use of facial rec by law enforcement in the UK to see how quickly that situation can be used to oppress citizens.
And then there’s the issue of security. While Amazon is pretty good on that front, users generally aren’t. Anything from an unsecured network to a weak or stolen Wi-Fi password could let malicious actors gain access to the very sensitive information on your Ring. So if you do choose to get one this holiday season, make sure it’s protected by following strong password best practices and updating regularly.
For me, it’s a no — Ring isn’t worth it. Amazon is one of the worst offenders in Big Tech when it comes to sucking up user data and using it for advertising, etc. I also don’t like their cooperation with law enforcement, nor do I think that it’s good for us as a society to literally be surveilling each other in this way. For me, the tradeoff between security and privacy here just isn’t worth it.
However, I’m going to end this with a caveat: It’s up to each individual to decide what they’re willing to trade for any and all devices they’re connecting with their home network. All I ask is that you stay aware, stay informed, and make those choices in an educated way.
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