My stepmother actually has a favorite video from her Ring doorbell device, which records your home as part of a security system. It shows my father leaving the house under his own power just days before he had to be taken to the hospital, the place where his life ended. It’s a touching thing, something that made me think about getting a Ring.
However, there’s a problem. You see, the device in question doesn’t just record stuff and store it on your phone. The technology to do that may exist but isn’t currently practical for individual homes.
Instead, what happens is that the Ring makes a recording, then sends it to the company’s servers, where it’s then sent to an app on your phone.
That’s where things get problematic.
For example, an Ohio man’s Ring videos are now in police custody, even those not believed to have recorded any criminal activity. Politico reports:
“The week of last Thanksgiving, Michael Larkin, a business owner in Hamilton, Ohio, picked up his phone and answered a call. It was the local police, and they wanted footage from Larkin’s front door camera.
Larkin had a Ring video doorbell, one of the more than 10 million Americans with the Amazon-owned product installed at their front doors. His doorbell was among 21 Ring cameras in and around his home and business, picking up footage of Larkin, neighbors, customers and anyone else near his house.
The police 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.”
Ring has a history of voluntarily working closely with law enforcement, but that wouldn’t have mattered in this case, because of the warrant. All the video from more than 20 cameras was forwarded to the police.
The problem? Ring also provides cameras that record inside the home.
By virtue of the fact that these videos are in law enforcement’s hands, any potential activity carried out by a resident in their own home could potentially fall under police scrutiny. What started out as an investigation into the actions of a suspected drug dealer could well land a resident in handcuffs.
Someone will probably point out right now how if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. Frankly, that person should zip it.
For one thing, our nation wasn’t founded on the idea that our government has the authority to be privy to every little aspect of our personal lives without a damn good reason. The idea of accessing all cameras on a given property, including any inside, because of suspicious activity that might be on one camera goes against that very principle.
Then there’s the fact that we have so many laws between the state, federal, and local levels that it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with all of them. As a result, someone may be doing something illegal and not even realize it.
But if law enforcement has a peek inside the home, they might feel differently.
Now, is this a massive problem? Yes, but not necessarily due to scale. It may not be happening a great deal, but for people concerned about privacy, it’s bad news for companies like Ring or devices for inside the home like Amazon’s Alexa.
While I’d love to wire my house up to act like Jarvis from the Iron Man movies, the truth is that I just don’t trust such data not to end up in government hands. That creates a challenge for lawmakers, courts, and the companies themselves. How do we protect people’s privacy in an increasingly technological world so deeply connected? How can a company like Ring provide a useful service and actually protect customers from government intrusion?
The answer is that, with how the tech works now, they ultimately can’t. While the free market can and should demand changes from these companies, the most that will do is make it difficult to impossible for law enforcement to get the data from a third party. It doesn’t offer that much protection from a court ordering such data to be handed over by the individual, though.
We also know that judges vary to significant degrees. While some might have issued a very narrow order, the judge in the example above didn’t.
That, unfortunately, means we need to turn to legislators, and that’s terrifying. Yet that’s where we are. We need lawmakers to craft laws to address this sort of thing so that videos of personal things–romantic occasions between consenting adults, for example–cannot end up in law enforcement’s hands without probable cause.
And putting faith in lawmakers is downright terrifying. But so is the alternative.