Smart doorbells are doorbells that connect to a homeowner’s smartphone via an internet connection and notifies them when someone rings their doorbell. In addition to the normal doorbell sound made in the house, as soon as a visitor presses the button on the doorbell the owner receives a notification on their smartphone. It can also be activated via motion sensors that sense when a person is moving close to the doorbell, mainly on a person’s front porch. Once the doorbell is activated, a person can see and communicate with the visitor remotely through their smartphone app. At first, news and media outlets praised smart doorbells for their increased home security protection, but terms of conditions that go unread which put a lot of liability on the user as well as a series of doorbell-camera hackings and mishaps have raised ethical concerns in recent years.
History and Growth
One of the most popular and earliest smart doorbells to hit the market was created in 2013, the DoorBot. Pitched on SharkTank in November 2013, the Sharks actually passed up on the opportunity to invest because they couldn’t see how it would progress and expand to be in every house in America like the founder Jamie Siminoff claimed. Rebranded in 2014 as the Ring Doorbell, it exploded as people saw it as a way to increase home security while they were away from their houses. Siminoff sold the Ring Doorbell in 2018 to Amazon for over $1 billion.
Today, there are many different brands of smart doorbells, however Ring is still at the top of the industry in popularity and sales. Other brands of smart doorbells include Nest, Skybell, Arlo, and Vivint.
Wilshire Park, CA
In 2015, Ring began a marketing promotion that would change homeowners' mentalities from it being a fun toy to an actual home security device that leverages the Internet of Things. They offered to install 500 homeowners in Wilshire Park, CA, a city outside of Los Angeles, their product for free. After the installations, police in the area claimed that home burglaries dropped “astronomically”. Homeowners praised the doorbell for protecting them from what would have surely been a robbery without it. Positive media coverage on smart doorbells exploded, praising the doorbell on is heightened security that gives homeowners control from thousands of miles away.
Sense of Safety
After news of Wilshire Park and stories like it spread across the country, many people made the switch to smart doorbells because they too wanted that security everyone was boasting about. Positive press came from people all over the country as smart doorbells stopped home invasions and package theft in their tracks. Videos of homeowners scaring away potential thieves by speaking to them through their doorbells went viral, and the companies within industry used it to their advantage. Ring, wanting to promote why people should switch to smart doorbells, created a page of these viral videos on their website, continue to use first-hand examples of heightened security in their marketing efforts.
When agreeing to any of the smart doorbell’s terms and conditions upon purchasing the product, users agree, for the most part unknowingly, that employees have access to the cached videos that come from the doorbell they are about to install. Obviously, because people do not read terms and conditions in their entirety, many argue that users do not know this and argue that Ring misleads them. In fact, in January 2020 a Ring employee was fired for “improperly accessing Ring users' video data”.
With employees having access to videos of private property, they are likely seeing homeowner’s children playing in the front yard, watching someone change a tire in the driveway, or talking to the neighbor across the street. Surveillance of people at their own homes without their knowledge or permission is a direct violation of their privacy. In a product that claims to increase your home’s security, it is unethical for employees have access to their camera’s footage at all times when it's not common knowledge to the average homeowner that this is happening.
Their terms and conditions also state, for legal issues, that a user’s camera cannot point at public streets or neighbors yards. Therefore, if someone’s camera were to point at a neighbor’s lawn, they are illegally surveilling their neighbor on private property. Most smart doorbell’s terms and conditions state that the person who installed the camera is at fault if legal action were to be taken for violating this law. However, the regular, untrained person who threw out the terms and conditions without so much as a glance at them would not know to install the camera in a way that only includes their private property. For this to be ethical, information on proper installation of the device should also be included in the directions so that it is not missed. Putting crucial information in the terms and conditions that holds a person legally liable by simply installing a product is not enough for it to be fairly enforced, as it is well known that they are sparingly read.
In 2016, researchers made Ring aware of how easy it was to hack their doorbells and gain access to a homeowner's wireless network. By unscrewing the doorbell via two standard screws secured to its back plate, pressing the setup button and accessing the configuration URL, attackers were able hack the wireless network without leaving any physical evidence of tampering with the device. While Ring did fix this in a future software update, it was up to homeowner's to update their doorbells. In addition, cameras connected to the internet are very susceptible to hackers.
A mixup within the doorbell company itself has also created an unintentional hacking situation. In 2016, Ring mixed up two databases which allowed users to “hack” someone else’s camera. Many people reported seeing video feed from someone else’s property, and there was no way to see their own property. Seeing live feed from someone else’s property is essentially stalking, and very concerning for a security company to make such a large mistake. In addition, in December 2019 Ring notified more than 3000 owners after accidentally exposing their login information online. Those most vulnerable from this were asked to change their passwords and turn on two-factor authentication . Someone can easily gain access to the camera's footage once they have an account's login information, gaining control of a home's security as some smart doorbells can even unlock doors via the app. Hackings make the home much more vulnerable to unwanted surveillance and break-ins, as well as eliminates all control a homeowner has over their private property.
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- Wroclawski, Daniel. “3,000 Ring Doorbell and Camera Accounts May Be Vulnerable to Hackers.” Consumer Reports, 19 Dec. 2019, www.consumerreports.org/hacking/ring-doorbell-accounts-may-be-vulnerable-to-hackers/.