Video Doorbell Cameras Record Audio, Too

Cindy F. Cape

“I was surprised by how clear the audio was at a distance. I wasn’t expecting that because my personal experience with doorbell audio has always involved talking to people who are actually at the door,” Wroclawski says. “If there is a way to adjust the mic sensitivity so audio is not captured at such a distance, these companies should probably do that.”

Nearly 2 in 10 Americans (18 percent) have video doorbells, according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey (PDF) of 2,223 U.S. adults conducted in January 2021. That means for many people, phone calls and interactions with family, friends, and others in their own driveways or on the steps of their homes aren’t really private.

“It captures audio much further than I expected,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. He points out that a doorbell cam at the end of an echoey hallway could be collecting very clear audio of people’s conversations, even if they don’t see it. That could happen in apartment buildings where a landlord has installed these cameras, which could record people visiting their lobby mailbox or walking down a hallway, he says.

And someone with a screen door who keeps their front door open all day could not only record audio from the street but also capture audio from inside their home. “Suddenly you’re having conversations with your family inside your house, and they are recorded on a server somewhere,” Guariglia says.

For some people, the prospect of the neighbors recording conversations may seem like a minor annoyance. However, people who worry about the creeping expansion of surveillance technology say that the microphones are problematic.

 “If you and another person are walking alone on the street at night a good distance in front of a house, I think there is some expectation of privacy,” Guariglia says. “And if a small box that is barely visible from the street can capture your audio at conversational tones, that really changes the paradigm of privacy.”

In addition to your neighbors accessing your conversations, if any of the recordings are shared with other users, for instance through Ring’s Neighbors app, or with the police—even if an investigation has nothing to do with you—a lot of strangers could end up listening to details of your weekend plans or an argument with your spouse.

Chris Gilliard, a visiting research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center agrees. “Some degree of obscurity in public space is a really important thing for society to have, and I think things like this erode it.” 

He also points out that people discussing their relationship status, health concerns, or other sensitive topics when they don’t think they’re being recorded could face potential harms that outweigh the claimed benefits. “It’s not hard to imagine ways in which people who don’t think they are being recorded might exhibit entirely legal and appropriate behavior, or reveal information they don’t desire to be made public,” he says. 

And he points out that any type of surveillance disproportionately impacts communities and individuals who are targeted by law enforcement most often, including people of color. “That’s a truism of surveillance: It’s going to fall earliest and most often on the marginalized.”

Individuals have few legal protections against this kind of surveillance. A law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act bars people from intercepting other people’s conversations, but it was written in 1986 and is difficult to apply to modern communications technology, according to Rebecca Green, professor of the practice of law at the William & Mary Law School. In addition, she says, it doesn’t cover video recordings.

Ring does get a significant number of government requests for users’ data, including warrants, court orders, and other information requests. The company summarizes them in a report it releases every six months. In the report, the company says it notifies users before disclosing information “unless it is prohibited from doing so or has clear indication of illegal conduct in connection with the use of Ring products or services.” In its most recent report, covering the second half of 2021, Ring says it processed 1,807 information requests, which included 765 requests for the content of data files stored in a user’s account such as videos recordings. The company only notified users of 376 information requests.

Arlo did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but it does publish a transparency report (PDF) which lays out the types of information requests it receives and whether it has provided all, some, or none of the information requested. The report does not include information on how often users are informed of these requests.

“I think the assumption has been for a long time that the market could fix all of this,” Green says. “If these products are not aligning with public sentiment, then somehow the markets will adjust. For example, companies that are horrible about protecting people’s privacy won’t do well. But I think profit-driven companies are totally disrupting normal assumptions.”

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