Video Doorbells Are Making Us More Aware, But Also More Paranoid

Safety Team
Updated Feb 19, 2021
7 min read
Personal surveillance devices can fan paranoia, which gives rise to problematic false alarms.

Video doorbells have changed the home security game and added a valuable tool to help police apprehend criminals. Today’s doorbell cameras allow you to see, hear and speak to someone at your door using desktop or mobile apps, whether you’re at home or away. They operate using motion detection, which activates the camera and sends you an alert when someone enters a user-defined zone.

You can hardwire some video doorbells using existing wiring, while others operate with batteries or solar panels. Many doorbell cameras feature night vision technology, and some come equipped with theft protection, which alerts you when someone removes your device.

  • Ring Video Doorbell 2
  • Skybell Video Doorbell
  • SMONET Smart Doorbell Camera
  • Nest Hello Video Doorbell

Ring, an Amazon company, has taken the lead among top competitors. The Ring Video Doorbell 2 system features 1080HD video, a built-in microphone and speaker, adjustable motion sensors, infrared night vision and live on-demand audio and video functionality. The Ring system is compatible with Android, iOS, Mac and Windows 10 systems and costs just under $200. The Ring Video Doorbell 2 can also integrate with the Ring Home Security System, which works with Amazon’s Alexa and features an alarm, a base station, door and window contact sensors and motion detectors.

Neighbors app enables neighborhood networks

Ring’s Neighbors app connects Ring users, forming a virtual neighborhood watch program. Through the app, Ring users can submit videos from Ring systems and write text messages to share information. If you opt into Neighbors’ law enforcement program, your police department can gain access to your videos.

Neighbors sends out real-time alerts to notify your community when an incident occurs. For example, if your Ring system captures a video of someone stealing a package from your porch, you can share the video on Neighbors to alert other Ring users in your area, while providing valuable evidence to the police. Within the app, you can scroll through a list of recent posts and see a map of your area, with pinpoint descriptors of incidents involving crimes, suspicious strangers and safety issues.

Neighbors is more than just a crime fighting tool. Ring communities also use the network to find lost pets and stay abreast of conditions during natural disasters.

Ring partners with hundreds of police departments

Amazon purchased Ring in 2018 for nearly $800 million, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. As of August 2019, Ring has partnered with more than 400 police departments, according to The Washington Post. Major metropolitan partnerships include police departments in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Through law enforcement partnerships, Ring can seamlessly notify the police when crimes occur and share valuable footage of offences or suspicious activities through the Neighbors app network. Like Ring users, police partners receive alerts when new Neighbors posts appear. Officers can also live chat with Neighbors users to obtain real-time details of incidents.

Some police departments have assigned teams to monitor Neighbors feeds to stay ahead of criminal activity and apprehend perpetrators. Each Neighbors user must consent to share videos with law enforcement. It’s important to note that police partners cannot access live feeds from Ring systems.

Video doorbells reducing crime rates

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, burglaries have decreased by more than 27% since 2013. The FBI does not offer any hard data on the role doorbell cameras play in home security, but anecdotal evidence suggests they have made an impact in preventing and solving crimes.

For example, the Chicago Tribune reported that, while traveling in Florida, a Chicago homeowner received a Ring alert that someone was at his front door. Using the Ring mobile app, he could see a man looking in the window of his home, so he activated the device’s audio feature and told the intruder to leave immediately. The suspicious character fled, averting a potential burglary. The homeowner shared Ring footage with the county sheriff’s department, who apprehended the suspicious man within 90 minutes for outstanding warrants.

A Richmond, Virginia, Ring user received an alert which revealed someone stealing packages from her front porch. After sending the video to the Richmond Police Department, and sharing it on her social media page, someone spotted the thief, whom police caught, and prosecutors successfully convicted.

Law enforcement officials praise the latest technology for the high-quality images it produces. With high-resolution, color video police can see fine details such as suspects’ facial features and license plate numbers, enabling them to more easily identify perpetrators.

Ring faces privacy concerns

Ring keeps a tight lid on the number of police departments signing up for the Neighbors program. Such secrecy, along with the close relationships Ring is building with police departments, has many privacy advocates concerned.

In his book The Rise of Big Data Policing, author and law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson raises concerns that the “eyes everywhere” approach to lead to a future where predictive software might employ algorithms to create wanted lists, with the potential to escalate racial profiling and trample on constitutional rights. In an interview with The Washington Post, Ferguson said Ring has created “a clever workaround for the development of a wholly new surveillance network, without the kind of scrutiny that would happen if it was coming from the police or government.”

Ring officials counter privacy concerns by pointing to company policy and contract terms, saying, “Ring does not disclose customer information in response to government demands unless we’re required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order.” However, Ring users have posted images and videos of “suspicious” people who often are door-to-door salespeople or strangers seeking help in an emergency.

Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights advocacy organization Fight for the Future, raises concerns about oversight and transparency, pointing out that large-scale installations of surveillance cameras by a police department typically require community input in city council meetings and public debates. “Through these partnerships with local police, Amazon is circumventing our democratic process and building a for-profit surveillance dragnet,” Greer told the Kansas City Star.

American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas legal director, Lauren Bonds, is not concerned about homeowners using video doorbells to help protect their homes, but she is concerned that such devices can violate citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights which protect against unlawful searches and seizures. “Even though it’s an opt-in process for individual residents, it’s not an opt-in process for people who are essentially subject to a constant police surveillance state. When the government is employing all these cameras that can cover someone’s moves across an entire neighborhood, that’s a surveillance state,” Bond told the Star.

Pointing the finger at innocent people

Images captured on doorbell cameras can sometimes lead users to make false accusations. For example, in July 2019, The Columbus Dispatch reported a Columbus, Ohio, resident’s Ring doorbell captured video of a young man taking a package from his front porch. The Ring user turned over the video to the Columbus police department, who posted screenshots of the incident on its website, asking citizens for help in identifying the man. However, police later learned that the courier had delivered the package to the wrong house, which was a common occurrence. The young man was retrieving the package for his mother, the rightful recipient.

A 2019 study by Motherboard, a Vice Media publication, found a disproportionate number of Neighbors postings that featured people of color deemed “suspicious” by Ring users. In some cases, Ring users even used racist or disparaging language to describe people captured on video.

Ring urges its users to refrain from making crude, insensitive or racist comments when posting to Neighbors and to include warnings on posts that show disturbing content. Ring prohibits users from promoting vigilantism and posting identifying information about individuals such as names and telephone numbers.

False alarms can threaten public safety

False alarms prompted by Ring users waste valuable resources and deplete first responder budgets. Even worse, false alarms threaten public safety, because police and firefighters must respond to calls, even when there is no emergency. User error and malfunctioning equipment typically cause most false alarms. According to Ring, its users typically cause false alarms due to:

  • Entry and exit delays that trigger the alarm system.
  • Forgetting their verbal passwords.
  • Failing to answer their phones when the Ring monitor center calls.
  • Not sharing their verbal passwords when emergency service personnel call.
  • Poorly installed motion detectors or contact sensors.
  • Pets triggering motion detectors.
  • Failing to disarm an alarm system after returning home.
  • Placing a smoke detector equipped with a listening device too close to a stove.
  • Failing to properly train a caregiver such as a house sitter or dog walker in operating the alarm system.
  • Failing to cancel an emergency responder dispatch after erroneously triggering an alarm.

Some cities are cracking down on repeat offenders by revoking their alarm system permits, which can lead to big problems if an actual emergency occurs. Other cities charge false alarm fees, which can increase for multiple offenses, to deter reoccurrences and recoup costs. For example, Longmont Police Services in Longmont, Colorado, charges alarm system owners $100 for the first three false alarms in a calendar year, with fees escalating up to $400 for repeat offenses.

Home Security Experts

Safety Team

The Safety Team is a group of experts that handle provider research, product reviews and recalls to make your home safety and security search as easy as 1-2-3.

Like what you've read?

Share it with your friends