Ring and Nest helped normalize American surveillance and turned us into a
nation of voyeursFor all the worries about hacking, owners of
Internet-connected cameras say they love watching people silently from afar
— often their own family members
[image: Hayden Maynard for The Washington Post]Hayden Maynard for The
Washington Post
By Drew Harwell <>
Feb. 18, 2020 at 7:00 a.m. CST

Margaret Cudia thought her Ring doorbell camera was “the best thing since
sliced bread.” She loved watching the world pass by through her suburban
New Jersey neighborhood, guarding vigilantly for suspicious strangers and
porch pirates from the comfort of her phone.

She hadn’t expected the camera also might capture awkward moments closer to
home, like the time it caught her daughter grabbing a beer and talking
about how controlling her mother was. “I never told her about that one,”
she said with a laugh.

Amazon’s Ring, Google’s Nest and other Internet-connected cameras — some
selling for as little as $59 — have given Americans the tools they need to
become a personal security force, and millions of people now seeing what’s
happening around their home every second — what Ring calls the “new
neighborhood watch.”
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But the allure of monitoring people silently from afar has also proved more
tempting than many expected. Customers who bought the cameras in hopes of
not becoming victims joke that instead they’ve become voyeurs.

The Washington Post surveyed more than 50 owners of in-home and outdoor
camera systems across the United States about how the recording devices had
reshaped their daily lives. Most of those who responded to online
solicitations about their camera use said they had bought the cameras to
check on package deliveries and their pets, and many talked glowingly about
what they got in return: security, entertainment, peace of mind. Some said
they worried about hackers, snoops or spies.

But in the unscientific survey, most people also replied that they were
fine with intimate new levels of surveillance — as long as they were the
ones who got to watch.

They analyzed their neighbors. They monitored their kids and house guests.
And they judged the performance of housekeepers, babysitters and other
domestic workers, often without letting them know they were being recorded.
“I know maybe I should” tell them, one woman explained, “but they won’t be
as candid.”

She installed a Ring camera in her children’s room for ‘peace of mind.’ A
hacker accessed it and harassed her 8-year-old daughter.

Ring and Nest representatives said they had recently implemented new
privacy and security measures to help protect customers’ accounts and that
they encourage new users to make it clear that the cameras can record at
any time. Ring’s installation guide
suggests customers use stickers or signs to “let visitors know that your
home is under audio/video surveillance by a Ring device.”

But the cameras’ offering of secretive observation, some customers told The
Post, often felt too enticing to ignore. Mari Gianati, whose Nest cameras
watch over her waterfront home in Puerto Rico, said she uses the cameras to
examine the housekeepers, the pool guy, the fumigator, the people who feed
her birds and any strangers who pass by her private road, most of whom she
said don’t know the cameras are there.

“I have to admit: Sometimes I just watch,” she said. Once she looked on for
hours as her sister argued with workers over a delivery of damaged
furniture. “Thank goodness I had WiFi!” she said.

All that added vigilance has come at a cost. Hackers
have peered into children’s bedrooms. Police officers
have asked homeowners for video of their neighbors. And families have had
to reckon with the delicate new bounds of home privacy — including one
woman who didn’t realize that her lovemaking with her husband had been
caught on camera until it was too late.

But most people said those concerns weren’t enough to persuade them to turn
off their cameras. Device sales have surged in recent years amid falling
prices and rising public acceptance: The companies won’t give full sales
figures, but they say millions of cameras now are online nationwide. Ring
in November that its doorbell cameras were dinged more than 15 million
times on Halloween, nearly double the previous year’s total.

How Nest, designed to keep intruders out of people’s homes, effectively
allowed hackers to get in

Matthew Guariglia, an analyst for the online-rights group Electronic
Frontier Foundation, said the rush of new home cameras threatened to make
the problems of widespread surveillance — the chilling of free speech, the
erosion of privacy — that much more intimate and inescapable.

“Who hasn’t looked out and watched other people through their peephole?
There’s a kind of morbid fascination to it,” he said. “The problem is when
it’s not just you behind a peephole but a camera that’s on at all times,
saving to a cloud you don’t control.”

No gadget since the smartphone has so quickly normalized personal
surveillance. The motion-detecting cameras are cheap and come in a range of
styles, from outdoor units with sirens and floodlights to battery-powered
“stick-up cams” that can be placed virtually anywhere. Owners can watch the
cameras live or save the videos for a few dollars a month.

Some cities offer rebate and voucher programs for the cameras in hopes that
more surveillance footage will make crimes easier to solve. The cameras
have also become popular Christmas gifts, and Google and Amazon have
advertised them around the holidays with hashtags like #CaughtOnNestCam
<> and #AlwaysHome
<>. (In December,
Ring also sold festive holiday camera faceplates

The extra eyes have been a huge gift to American law enforcement. Ring lets
police officers use a special tool to ask customers for videos captured in
and around their houses, and the number of police agencies
with access has more than doubled since September, to nearly 900 agencies
across 44 states, a Post analysis found. “Ring believes when communities
and local police work together, safer neighborhoods can become a reality,”
Ring spokeswoman Yassi Shahmiri said in a statement.

Privacy advocates have called the Ring-police partnerships an unnerving
escalation of criminal surveillance powers. But nearly every Ring owner
contacted by The Post said they would have no problem providing video to
law enforcement if it could help solve a crime. Police and prosecutors last
month pushed to use Ring doorbell footage in a Texas murder investigation
and a New Hampshire assault trial

Ring has terminated employees for abusing access to people’s video data,
Amazon tells lawmakers

Some homeowners said they had already tried to be police informants,
logging in several times a day to Ring’s companion app, Neighbors, in which
people can share video of break-ins, lost dogs and seemingly unsavory

By tallying up neighborhood reports of suspicion and uncertainty, the
social network can also turn harmless moments — the kind most people would
have been blissfully ignorant of — into signs of danger or sources of dread.

That heightened level of suburban surveillance has also triggered some
false alarms. One man labeled a “Suspicious Male” on Neighbors because he
stepped onto a Boston porch later defended himself by saying he had been
reminiscing about his old house. “I used to play with my dog in the
backyard,” he said, according to a Boston Magazine story
(Perhaps to lighten the mood, Ring this month unveiled a new category for
Neighbors app users wanting to share recorded acts of kindness: “Neighborly

Some customers said the cameras had sparked conversations within their
families about trust and privacy in a new surveillance age, often with
answers they would rather have gone unsaid. After Rik Eberhardt set up a
Nest camera inside his home in the Boston suburbs, he found it increasingly
awkward being reminded of every late-night trip he or his wife took to the
kitchen. “I started feeling like: What am I even using this for?” he said.
(He has since aimed the camera at his cats’ food bowls.)

Others said they were growing exhausted from the hyper-vigilance the
cameras seemed to demand. The motion-activated devices can send alerts
whenever someone walks by and also can be triggered by the movement of
cars, dogs, squirrels and windblown trees, leading some customers to feel
startled or under siege.

Several customers offered tales of strange noises, bizarre whispers and
ghostly apparitions: One mother said she worried her toddler’s nightmares
might have been caused by the unblinking camera in his room. The mortal
realm has not always appreciated being recorded, either. One apartment
dweller who said he used his Ring camera to record people littering at the
community mailbox was told by his landlords to knock it off.

The doorbells have eyes: The privacy battle brewing over home security

Molly Snyder, an education blogger and mother of three in the suburbs
outside Columbus, Ohio, said videos from Ring doorbells and other home
cameras had become the biggest source of conversation and outrage in her
neighborhood Facebook group.

“There’s never video of porch pirates or criminals. It’s all what we’re
doing to each other, or what the mailman is doing to frustrate our day,”
she said. The postal worker’s biggest transgression, she said, is not
pulling all the way to the side of the road when delivering packages:
“People capture that on video, and there’s always a lot of rage commenting,
with everybody dumping on the mailman.”

Her neighbors, she said, regularly post videos of children walking down the
street alongside comments like, “Whose kids are these?” They don’t look
like they’re doing anything wrong — a typical breach involves taking a
shortcut through someone’s lawn — but her children told her they knew of
kids who had gotten in trouble after video was posted of them hitting a
tree with a stick.

“We’re not a neighborhood that’s unsafe. We’re also not a neighborhood
where people spend a lot of time outside, interacting with each other,” she
said. “So we turn our Rings on and start dissecting all the children.
Shouldn’t we be encouraging each other to go outside, say hello and not
just get alerts that you’re walking past?”

This ability to see into homes has already been weaponized: Hackers have
used the camera systems to shout racist slurs at an 8-year-old girl in
and a 15-year-old boy in Florida
spew sexual expletives and kidnapping threats at a 4-month-old baby in Texas
and broadcast pornography into the bedroom of a 2-year-old girl in

Tania Amador, a teacher’s aide in Texas who used her Ring camera to coo at
her cancer-stricken bulldog, shared video with The Post showing a hacker
laughing as he blasted a deafening siren through her living room while she
and her boyfriend hid just out of view. She is suing the company, arguing
its lax security controls left her open to abuse.

Shahmiri, the Ring spokeswoman, declined to comment on the ongoing case but
said Ring’s network had not been compromised. In some cases, Ring has
argued that hackers used log-in details stolen from other sites; Amador
said she had used a unique, 14-character password and had no idea how her
cameras had been breached.

“It felt like a nightmare,” she said. “Even now, it’s tough to deal with
the fact that we may have been watched for a while without knowing. What if
the hacker (was) smart enough just to be quiet and watch?”

Ring partners with hundreds of police forces, extending surveillance

Beyond outright hacks, the systems’ technical errors have reminded users of
how creepy the glitches can be. The owner of a Google Nest video screen saw
footage recorded inside other people’s homes
including a close-up of a baby sleeping in a crib. Google said the issue
was the fault of the camera maker, the Chinese tech firm Xiaomi, and
temporarily disabled some links to the devices.

The potential for mayhem has led some camera lovers to rethink their
everyday use. Keith Keber said he liked using the cameras around his home
in suburban Washington state to watch the hummingbirds and talk to his
cats. But after his cameras’ maker, Wyze Labs, announced in December that
it had suffered a data breach, he has been unplugging his cameras and
leaving them in a drawer. “All these Internet-of-things devices, they’re
portals,” he said, “not just to look out but to look in.”

Some customers also voiced anxiety over who might have access to their
in-home feeds. An Amazon executive told senators last month that Ring had fired
following four complaints that they had abused access to customers’ video
data; the company has declined to provide further detail. Criticism of the
systems has also come from inside the companies: Amazon software engineer
Max Eliaser wrote last month
that the mass deployment of Internet-connected cameras was “simply not
compatible with a free society.”

“Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back,” he wrote. “The
privacy issues are not fixable with regulation, and there is no balance
that can be struck.”

Despite privacy concerns, some customers said the cameras are a unique way
to keep track of their families. One woman said she had installed cameras
from Nest and the Chinese company Yi Technology to monitor her three
children, ages 3 and younger, when they are alone in their rooms.

But other camera owners said they would never dream of installing the
systems inside. Catherine, a 58-year-old Florida snowbird who uses Blink
cameras to watch her home in Minnesota and who requested to use only her
first name, said the cameras have become so easy to turn on that many
people don’t really think about what’s at stake. Parents who installed
cameras in kids’ rooms, she said, might end up depriving them of the
privacy they need to grow into independent adults.

“We’re all getting too paranoid. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the
next victim. And it’s set into us this mentality that we have to watch
everything and everybody,” she said. “They think, ‘If I put all these
cameras up, I’ll be safe.’ Safe from what? … It’s only making them more