Amazon’s Ring Camera Has an Eavesdropping Problem
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Up until two years ago, a British scientist named Dr. Mary Fairhurst lived in a brick house at the end of a quaint road of connected homes in Oxfordshire, U.K. Her neighbor, audio-visual technician Jon Woodward, lived on the other side of a narrow road between their houses. Woodward had installed several Amazon.com Inc. Ring cameras around his property, including on his shed, at the end of his driveway and on his door as a doorbell.
In 2018, Woodward was doing refurbishments on his house and invited Fairhurst for a tour. He showed her a video clip on his smartwatch of a car driving out of their communal car park, a live feed from one of his cameras.
Woodward seemed to be trying to impress her, Fairhurst later told a court, but she was alarmed. The cameras could see where she parked her car and other parts of the surrounding property. Fairhurst later sued Woodward for breaching her privacy with the cameras. But the presiding judge spotted a bigger issue: Woodward’s cameras could hear just as well as they could see.
Melissa Clarke, a county court judge in Oxford, pointed out that Woodward’s Ring camera could reliably record audio at conversational volume from 68 feet away, based on an experiment carried out by one of the witnesses in the case. That’s about the length of a 10-pin bowling lane or, for the Brits, the length of a cricket pitch. When triggered by movement, the cameras mounted on Woodward’s doorbell and at the foot of his drive could capture conversations on her driveway, at her front door and even in her back yard, Clarke said in her judgment, made public on Oct. 12.
If Woodward wanted, he could identify who was speaking because he was familiar with his neighbors, she added. All told, obtaining audio data was “even more problematic and detrimental than video data.”
The case, which will probably be cited in U.K. courts for years to come, spotlights how the “listening” concerns normally associated with Amazon’s Alexa devices apply to its cameras, too. Back in 2018 when Woodward showed off his cameras, he didn’t have the ability to turn off their audio recording capabilities. Amazon only made that possible through a firmware update last year. Today, audio recording is switched on by default when Ring cameras are purchased, a spokeswoman for Amazon said. “We strongly encourage our customers to respect their neighbors’ privacy and comply with any applicable laws when using their Ring device,” she added.
That needs to change. Amazon should either take the audio recording functionality out of its cameras, or at minimum, have it off by default. It’s largely pointless in crime fighting — who needs to hear what a porch pirate is humming when they take off with your package? — and holds the potential to collect salacious gossip on behalf of the snoopiest of neighbors. Even if audio is turned off, “How can any of us know what settings our neighbor has set?” asks Stephanie Hare, an independent researcher and author of a forthcoming book on technology ethics. “It’s not like we can audit them.”
Britain has an estimated 10 million surveillance cameras mostly operated by private businesses, according to the British Security Industry Association. That number doesn’t include privately-owned cameras, like car dashcams and Ring doorbells (which each cost 90 pounds, or about $120). But it does mean the Brits have among the highest densities of surveillance technology outside of China.
Lawmakers are capitalizing where they can. Last month the U.K.’s opposition Labour party said that its vision for fighting crime involved a “next-generation neighborhood watch” using data from doorbell cameras and WhatsApp groups. “‘Next generation neighborhood watch’ sounds pretty friendly and reassuring, rather than ‘private video and audio surveillance network,’” Hare notes.
There’s a silver lining to all those cameras, though: A greater chance of lawsuits that can spotlight the privacy problems.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of "We Are Anonymous."
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