How doorbell apps are 'an ever-expanding web of surveillance': report

How doorbell apps are 'an ever-expanding web of surveillance': report
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Home surveillance systems have surged in popularity due to their low cost, ease of installation, and the peace of mind that they bring to residents. But these closed-circuit networks may not be the guardians of privacy that people believe them to be.

On Tuesday, Politico's Alfred Ng reported the story of an Ohio man named Michael Larkin, who was contacted by law enforcement last Thanksgiving after Ring shared his doorbell camera's footage with the local police – who had obtained a signed warrant from a judge.

According to Politico, the cops "said they were conducting a drug-related investigation on a neighbor, and they wanted videos of 'suspicious activity' between 5 and 7 p.m. one night in October. Larkin cooperated, and sent clips of a car that drove by his Ring camera more than 12 times in that time frame. He thought that was all the police would need. Instead, it was just the beginning. They asked for more footage, now from the entire day’s worth of records. And a week later, Larkin received a notice from Ring itself: The company had received a warrant, signed by a local judge. The notice informed him it was obligated to send footage from more than 20 cameras — whether or not Larkin was willing to share it himself."

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Larkin's situation, Politico explained, represents a growing battle over privacy rights stemming from who actually owns the content that companies like Ring store on their devices and who should be able to see it.

Jennifer Lynch, the surveillance litigation director of a digital rights advocacy group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Politico that Ring's deference to police "really takes the control out of the hands of the homeowners, and I think that's hugely problematic."

United States Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) also expressed deep concerns about Ring and the potentially devastating impacts its actions can have on unsuspecting customers.

"They are part of an ever-expanding web of surveillance in communities across America,” Markey said. "I've been ringing alarms about this company's threats to our privacy and civil liberties for years."

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Ring, meanwhile, insisted that it treats each instance uniquely.

"We review all legal documents served on us, and if we have reason to believe that a demand is overbroad, we question the request and may ask law enforcement to suggest a more limited production of information," spokesperson Brendan Daley said.

Nonetheless, Lynch emphasized that there are real dangers.

"If you think about a search of a home, you're limited to the physical space that's inside the home and what can be held there," Lynch said. "But in a warrant for electronic data, the account may have a nearly unlimited amount of data associated with it. And we've seen courts struggle with how to limit these warrants."

More unnerving still, Politico pointed out that Ring also has a service "called Neighbors, where users can upload and post clips, like a virtual neighborhood watch. In 2018, it started partnering with local police departments, with features specifically for officers on the app, allowing them to send public safety alerts and requests for video footage to users in a specific area. By 2023, Ring had nearly 2,350 police departments on its Neighbors network."

The problem, Politico noted, is that the law has not kept up with technology.

"Though the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect Americans from broad law enforcement searches, the legal system's protection for citizens hasn’t caught up to digital advances," Ng wrote. "When police request a warrant for a physical search, the affidavits are usually required to be specific, down to the item that they're searching for and what room it's in. When it comes to electronic communications, the line is blurrier. In the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Congress created a fresh standard for surveillance as technology evolved: The law prevents unauthorized government wiretaps on electronic data. But it doesn't address more nuanced questions, like how much data the government can request. For an electronic search, because data can be nearly unlimited, courts have struggled with how to restrict these warrants, Lynch said. As a result, she said, it's common to see warrants for data asking for swaths of digital records that would be considered an overreach by judges if it were for a physical search."

Ng added that "in warrants for digital communications such as emails, search histories and messages, the warrant's subject is usually the suspect under investigation — but when it comes to surveillance footage, which is passively recording hours of footage in public spaces, you can be an innocent bystander and still find police asking for your data. The lack of legal controls on what police can ask for, and judges failing to properly scrutinize these warrants, opens the door for even indoor home footage to be lumped in with these legal demands."

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Ng's full report is available here.

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