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Is your doorbell watching you?

Ring is a home security company that hit the headlines in 2018 when Amazon acquired it for $839 million. Wifi enabled doorbells entered the mainstream as users embraced the ability to view live video footage on their smartphone from their homes when they were at work or on holiday. 

The devices were initially promoted as a convenient way to communicate with a delivery driver. But the Ring ecosystem began to evolve into something that set off a few alarm bells with legal experts and privacy advocates. Shortly after the acquisition, Neighbors, Ring's "neighbourhood watch" app, encourages communities to report crime and suspicious activity.

By turning everyone into cops, Amazon seemed to be unwittingly making users assume the worst about their neighbours and residents in their community. Predictably, secret partnerships with police departments made friendly chats with a delivery driver feel like a distant memory.

Exhibit A. Last year a promotional video from Ring showcased an affluent Orlando suburb that proudly uses Ring Cameras to protect their community. Police Chief Michael Deal narrated the video and stated how the cameras play a part in helping them solve crimes. Traditional neighbourhood watch schemes are getting a digital makeover and creating safer, more connected communities by catching the bad guys in the act.

When Ring performed its own research, it claimed that its doorbell cameras reduce burglaries by over 50 percent. There are endless stories of police departments signing agreements with the company. But NBC discovered that the evidence that the home surveillance cameras inside Ring's doorbells reduce crime is flimsy at best.

Technology also seems to bring out the best and worst sides of human nature. When Ring released its controversial Neighbors app, it encouraged users to use the app to offer a shout-out to a neighbour’s act of kindness. However, rather than using tech to help communities stay safe and informed, it has also created vigilante detectives fuelled by paranoia and aggression.

"Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is." This old German proverb has become even more relevant in the digital age. Rolling 24-hour news channels reporting worst-case scenarios as facts often advise viewers to stop in their homes and lock their doors. Behind those doors, they continue to consume more sensationalized information that feeds their fear while treating everyone that passes their door with suspicion.

When watching TV in the comfort of their own home, most people are blissfully unaware of what is happening in their neighbourhood. Many are aware that their guilty pleasure of endlessly scrolling down a social media timeline involves the occasional hit of dopamine to keep them on the platform. But inviting around the clock notifications of every suspicious activity in their area will only create more paranoia and distrust.

Surveillance as a service

Welcome to the world of surveillance as a service. The problem is that a barrage of notifications could quickly create a false perception that crime is on the rise in their area and enhance racial stereotyping. How long until these increased fears lead to residents taking matters into their own hands and begin creating watch lists of who they deem to be unsavoury characters?

Rather than reducing crime, there is an increasing argument that the rise of smart doorbells is actually increasing paranoia in communities rather than uniting them. Ironically, the devices that are supposed to be protecting you from the bad guys are actually harvesting your data and selling it to tech companies like Facebook and Google. 

Neighbourhood watch teams are increasingly building privately run surveillance networks run by armchair detectives. Ironically, by neglecting their online security responsibilities, many are inviting sinister hackers into their homes through a virtual backdoor. But if we dare to look behind the tech curtain, is your smart doorbell fighting crime or watching you and invading your privacy?

Is your doorbell watching you?

Earlier this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that the Ring Doorbell accompanying app was sharing names, IP addresses, and other data with third parties. The cybersecurity holes in its always-connected devices seemed to suggest that the company might not be prioritizing the security and privacy of its customers.

In defence of Ring, the company has bowed to pressure and made two-factor verification mandatory on its accounts. It has also since paused the data sharing for most third-party partners, but is it too little, too late? The problem is arguably much bigger than the security of personally identifiable information (PII). 

It wasn't people in the community, but Ring that was caught red-handed taking sensitive data and delivering it to third parties. You won't receive any notifications on your phone about inadequate cybersecurity practices, secretive police partnerships, or privacy violations from your doorbell.  

Maybe the real bad guys and thieves you should be protecting yourself from cannot be seen by an always watching camera inside your doorbell after all.

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