I spy: are smart doorbells creating a global surveillance network? | Life style
I have got a new doorbell. It’s brilliant. It should be; it cost £89. It’s a Ring video doorbell; you’ll have seen them around. There are others available, made by other companies, with other four-letter names such as Nest Arlo. When someone rings my doorbell, I’m alerted on my smartphone. I can see who is there, speak to them.
My phone is ringing! C major first inversion chord, arpeggiated, repeated, for the musically trained – you’ll recognise it if you’ve heard it. It’s a delivery. Amazon, as it happens; Amazon acquired Ring in 2018, reportedly for more than $1bn.
“Hi, Amazon guy, I’m not in… I mean, I’m upstairs.” I’m not, but I don’t want him – or anyone else – to know that. “Could you leave it behind the bins, please?”
Visitors don’t even have to ring the bell. I can set it to alert me when there is motion up to nine metres away from the door. Or I can just open the app on my phone get a live feed of the street. “A lot happens at your front door,” says Ring in its marketing spiel.
Something happened at Luke Exelby’s front door. Luke, a lorry driver, was at home in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, watching telly in bed with his wife at about one in the morning (he works nights keeps unconventional hours). A notification on his phone went off, alerting him that there was something moving at the front door.
“I looked at it, I saw a man was trying to get into our porch,” he tells me. Was he scared? “I’m quite a big bloke – I know that sounds a bit knobbish,” he laughs. “And to be honest he looked really old.” So Luke went downstairs. But by the time he got there, the man had scarpered.
In the morning Luke contacted the police, who sent round a forensics team. They told him there had been a couple of burglaries in the neighbourhood. Luke, who is signed up to a Ring Protect plan (from £2.50 a month), which allows him to save footage captured by his doorbell, shared his with the police. “Because we got a picture of the person’s face, exactly where he put his hands on the door, they had his fingerprints. They could link his face his fingerprints to the burglaries around the corner. They caught him straight away.”
Look on YouTube you can find hours of footage captured by video doorbell cameras: attempted burglaries, package thefts, as well as some more bizarre episodes – weirdos, doorbell-lickers, even bears poking about (that was in California). A friend of a friend has a clip of a man having a poo on his neighbour’s doorstep. In the eight years since the Ring doorbell was invented (originally as Doorbot in 2013; its founder Jamie Siminoff appeared on Shark Tank, the American version of Dragons’ Den), it has evolved from a doorbell that replicates the “caller ID” on your phone into a self-installed global CCTV network. The millions of cameras around the world have not only provided the internet with a new genre of viral video, but fuelled the message boards of Neighbourhood Watch-style apps groups.
Perhaps, most notably, it has even become a crime-solving tool: the last footage of Sarah Everard alive, before she was abducted while walking home in south London, was captured on a video doorbell. What seemed like a practical bit of kit has evolved far beyond its original scope. What next?
The police are certainly pleased about it. Det Supt Andy Smith of Suffolk constabulary first became aware of the benefits of this technology back in 2017. “One of Suffolk’s most prolific burglars was caught attempting to break into a residential property,” he tells me. “The occupier was away, but her doorbell system activated on her phone she could see the individual trying to get in through the front door.”
She called the police, they picked him up a couple of days later. The doorbell footage was instrumental, first in the police being alerted and, Smith says, “it actually recorded with some clarity the offence taking place. It was unequivocal evidence, very good facial capture.” The man pleaded guilty, got a custodial sentence.
It inspired a collaboration: Ring gave Suffolk constabulary a number of doorbells to hout in areas of higher crime. Smith says they have seen tangible results, the scheme has been useful in tackling not just burglary, but also domestic violence, antisocial behaviour, car crime. He describes it as “a massive benefit in terms of fighting crime. I would encourage any member of the public to think about this or similar technology.” Ring have since handed out free or discounted doorbells to several other police forces, including Leicestershire, Humberside Hertfordshire. In Wiltshire, residents with video doorbells are being asked to register on a police database.
Smith tells me about a couple of other incidents where a video doorbell camera has helped secure a conviction. A 45-year-old man from Lowestoft was caught on camera subsequently jailed for attempted burglary. And a 40-year-old man, also from Lowestoft (is Lowestoft is the crime capital of Britain?) was convicted of the same offence with Ring’s help.
Smith says his force is using doorbell footage more more often. “It features heavily in terms of house-to-house inquiries. If we have a major crime, then we will scope a particular area out.” This is happening in high-profile cases, too – police appealing to the public to check the footage on their doorbell cameras, or their car dashcams, to help their investigations.
In January this year, Corey Rice, 19, pleaded guilty at Sheffield Crown Court to wounding, attempted robbery possession of a blade. While trying to steal a gold bracelet, he stabbed its owner twice on his own doorstep in Rotherham. The man’s girlfriend managed to get him into the house, covered in blood struggling to breathe. He was taken to hospital where his chest was drained his lung re-expanded. He survived. The incident was captured on their Ring doorbell.
Prosecutor Conor Quinn thinks the footage, which was presented to Rice’s legal team, played a big part in Rice’s decision to plead guilty. “Without it he may well have had a trial,” Quinn tells me. And who knows how that would have gone, “where you’ve got one person’s word against another. The footage was instrumental in supporting the complainant’s version of the incident.” Had Rice pleaded not guilty, Quinn says he would have played the footage in court. Rice was sentenced to seven years in prison.
I am already feeling more secure since I got my new doorbell. It’s as though I’m always at home (forget the fact that, thanks to the pandemic, I basically am always at home). Phone alert, ding ding ding. Here we go again. Not a ring at the bell this time, just motion near the door. And it’s only my girlfriend, coming home. Wonder why, at this time. I’ll ask her. “Hey!”
She jumps. “Fuck off, creepy talking doorbell spy,” she says, goes inside, slamming the door, before I get the chance to ask her. I love my girlfriend, she’s such a luddite when it comes to new technology. Apologies for her language. Actually, why is she home, I wonder? I’m sure she said she was going to be out all day today. Maybe I’ll just keep it on live view for a while, then give her another little surprise when she comes out again.
It’s fun, watching out from my own front door, when I’m not there. There goes the bus – driver not wearing a mask, maybe I’ll report him? And that black cat, on the scrounge for food… Oh, now doing a poo, not on the doorstep, like the horrible man on my friend’s friend’s neighbour’s, but in our raised bed, right on the radishes. And Paul over the road, off to work. Late start today, Paul.
Who are these two, at my door, ringing the bell? Jehovah’s Witnesses, perhaps? I’m not sure I like the look of them, to be honest – it’s probably just because I’ve never seen them before. I could save the footage share it with my neighbours. Have you seen these two, do you know who they are, or what they’re up to? Posts like these are rife on neighbourhood sites such as Nextdoor, or on local WhatsApp or Facebook groups, increasingly popular since we all started spending so much time at home.
In the US, Ring has an app of its own, called Neighbors, which lets people share, view comment on crime security information in their communities. It’s not available in the UK at the moment, Ring won’t say whether it’s going to be. But the company has filed a patent for creating a “suspicious persons” database, using images taken by the doorbells. The machines currently don’t have facial recognition capabilities, unlike some rival products such as Google Nest.
More than 2,000 US police fire departments have partnered with Ring. This allows them to contact users in a particular area ask them to provide footage from the app to help with an investigation. In 2020, requests for footage were made relating to 22,335 incidents. Some police departments have offered discounted or free Ring doorbells in exchange for a promise to register them with law enforcement submit requested footage.
But, in contrast to the experience of Suffolk constabulary’s Smith, US media reports have disputed Ring’s crime-busting effectiveness. In spite of some high-profile cases where a doorbell captured footage of a crime (the kidnapping of an eight-year-old girl in Fort Worth, for example), an investigation by NBC News found that there was little evidence of Ring leading to arrests or reducing crime overall. Rather, police were spending a lot of time reviewing footage of raccoons.
Ring says it doesn’t have any formal partnerships with police forces in the UK. “Police forces do not have access to Ring customers’ devices, recorded videos or live streams,” a spokesperson told me. “Police in the UK only have access to customers’ video recordings if a customer chooses to download share them. Customers are in total control of the information they choose to share.”
They wouldn’t tell me how many Ring doorbells they’ve sold in the UK or in the world, but in various official communications they have referred to “millions”. In my road, roughly a quarter of doorbells are now video doorbells. In Luke Exelby’s street in Dunstable, it’s about half, he says.
Not everyone is thrilled about this. Silkie Carlo of civil liberties organisation Big Brother Watch has concerns about who else might be watching. She points towards reporting by The Intercept in 2019 which found Ring customer video feeds had been accessible, unencrypted, to the company’s Ukraine-based research development team.
Carlo says it’s about data collection. “That’s the purpose of these devices; we’re really just on the precipice of this as an issue.” You buy the device, sign up to the plan, “then you’re in this data-sharing, cloud storage relationship with them, paying monthly fees. Their ability to be in your home, in your domestic environment, is hugely profitable, probably more so than the product.”
Mariano delli Santi, legal policy officer at digital campaigning organisation Open Rights Group, says it’s part of a fundamental shift in the very nature of the internet. “The internet didn’t used to be a place where people were surveilled. Do you remember a cartoon of a dog surfing the internet, which says: on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog? That’s what it used to be like.”
His example of how far it has come from that, everyone (his dog, presumably) knowing you’re a dog? “The United States surveillance programmes that were covered extensively by your newspaper.” He’s talking about the NSA files, as revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013. “The government realised that corporations had a huge pool of data about what people were conducting online. And they could just access that with data access requests.”
He’s not saying the same is going on with footage from video doorbells, only that it could. And that a network of cameras provided by the same company can be – has been – abused. “It was abused, for example, during Black Lives Matter protests [in California in 2020]: police authorities in the US sent requests to owners of Ring doorbells to identify the people who were protesting.”
This kind of technology can promote racial profiling. In the US in 2019, Vice looked at more than 100 videos posted on the Neighbors app over a two‑month period, found that the majority of people reported as “suspicious” were people of colour. In the same year, US Democratic senator Edward Markey wrote to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos raising concerns that collaborations between Ring law enforcement could disproportionately affect minorities. He said sharing footage with police “could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of colour” fuel “racial anxieties”. More than 30 civil rights organisations wrote an open letter calling on US government officials to end Amazon Ring’s police partnerships.
Chris Gilliard, an expert in privacy surveillance, as well as a professor of English at Macomb Community College, near Detroit, wasn’t surprised by the Vice reporting. “The problem with these technologies is that they exacerbate allow people to amplify their existing prejudices,” he tells me on the phone from Michigan. “So if Ring didn’t exist, or Neighbors didn’t exist, a racist person saw a black guy riding his bike down the street they thought, ‘Oh, that guy doesn’t live in our neighbourhood,’ they had limited options of what they could do. They couldn’t take to a platform broadcast it to dozens or hundreds of people.”
Ring has come under fire for a number of security breaches, with hackers able to access systems remotely. In 2019 an investigation by tech website Gizmodo found it could pinpoint the locations of tens of thousands of Ring users using data from posts on the Neighbors app. In January last year, four Ring employees were sacked for accessing customer video feeds in a manner that “exceeded what was necessary for their job functions”.
Ring says protecting customers’ privacy, security control over their devices personal information is paramount to them. In 2020, they launched an in-app dashboard that allows users to change privacy security settings. They have also introduced a second layer of verification to help prevent unauthorised users gaining access to a Ring account, will soon be rolling out end-to-end encryption to UK customers. Ring says that none of its employees have unrestricted access to customer data all personal information is treated as highly confidential.
Gilliard, in Michigan, sees a sinister corporate plan. “A thing like Ring belongs on the entire spectrum of Amazon’s move towards surveillance control – not only of workers, but also of consumers, of space in general,” he says. “The intent is to create a massive web of surveillance in an attempt to try to shape the way people live their lives. It’s an attempt to replace a real sense of community with a notion of community that’s mediated by Amazon.”
Big Brother Watch’s Carlo has further concerns about what this kind of tech is doing to us. Is Silicon Valley enabling a generation of digital curtain-twitchers? “It effectively changes the nature of the world we live in,” she says. “The fact that when you walk down a street, your presence is being logged.”
Meet David from London – he’d rather not share his surname. He his wife got a Ring doorbell after they moved into their new house, when their toddler was a baby. They were getting a lot of deliveries, often weren’t in to receive them. “It’s very useful to be able to say: ‘Can you put it behind the bin,’” he says.
Plus they live in an area where there is some crime antisocial behaviour. “It does make us feel a bit more secure.” Then there was an incident, a postman ringing the bell when neither of them was at home. “You can see him muttering something, I couldn’t quite make it out, but something like ‘for fuck’s sake’ or ‘fucking typical’. It was quite aggressive.”
David, who is signed up to the Ring Protect Plan, tweeted Royal Mail, attaching the footage. They said it wasn’t clear what the postman had said; as far as he knows, no action was taken. How would David have felt if the postie had been fired, I wonder, for swearing in frustration at work – something everyone has done – when he thought he was alone? Without the Ring doorbell, the incident wouldn’t have been an incident; David would never have known, just come home to a note on the doormat. “It did make me think about that complaining culture whether we are snooping,” he admits.
David says that his street’s WhatsApp group does sometimes share footage of people they think look suspicious, particularly after, say, someone’s car has been broken into. This, says Carlo, is a dangerous path to go down. “Neighbourhood citizen policing – we’re talking about a personal-tech-based surveillance state. I don’t think we’re there now, but in five, six, seven years we could create that kind of environment.”
David talks to his toddler on the doorbell, who calls it the ding-dong. Sometimes he uses it to check that their cleaner isn’t cutting hours; their previous cleaner was consistently leaving 20 minutes early. Babysitters, too. “I think it’s useful to have in the back of your mind that you know when people are coming or going.”
It is turning us all into spies, then. Carlo thinks so. “New technology lends itself to that. If you think, even 10 years ago, the lengths someone would have to go to, to get this kind of covert CCTV, with motion sensors, in the home. Now it’s the default, in a way.”
She thinks it is selling fear, because fear is almost as profitable as data – that there are further dangers, even within the domestic environment. “You are recording the details of your life, you can see how, when there is conflict, that could easily become part of the picture. Imagine what that would mean in the context of an abusive or controlling relationship: ‘You say you got back at 12 last night, but actually it was 12.30, or 1am.’ Or, ‘Why were you with that person?’”
Interesting that earlier, Det Supt Smith – who, incidentally, is fully aware of the civil liberties issues – was talking about how this technology is useful in fighting domestic violence; now Carlo is talking about how it could also form part of the picture of domestic abuse or coercive control. Both right, I’m sure. Then there’s Luke Exelby, who says one of the reasons he got a Ring doorbell in the first place was to check up – in a worried dad way – on his four teenage daughters while he’s off working nights. “I keep telling them: text me when you get home. They never do, though. The notifications let me know when they get home. My kids know I’m not trying to spy on them.”
Ding ding ding, phone alert! It’s my girlfriend, leaving the house. She looks over at the doorbell, at me; she knows. Then she comes a bit closer, with a look that says don’t you bloody dare. Think I’ll leave it this time.