ATLANTA - We've all seen them: Frightening videos of potential thieves outside metro-Atlanta homes, captured by the homeowners' doorbell video cameras.
Channel 2's Dave Huddleston set out to investigate home doorbell cameras and how they could compromise your privacy.
When we first started investigating privacy concerns with doorbell videos like Amazon’s “Ring” and Google’s “Nest”, reporter Huddleston found Amazon's patent application to put a special kind of facial recognition software in Ring security cameras. Investigative Producer Patti DiVincenzo read the story about a man who hacked a password in a Nest branded baby monitor and then, through the monitor, threatened to kidnap a couple's baby.
But what we didn't expect was that we'd discover a whole new privacy problem. Here's how it happened:
First, we downloaded Ring's social media app called "Neighbors". It's billed as a new type of neighborhood watch. But that’s not exactly right. A real neighborhood watch is limited to people who actually live in the neighborhood.
But the Ring app is open to everyone.
We did have to enter a home address, so we put in DiVincenzo's home address. Right away, we could see videos posted up to 5 miles away. Pretty big neighborhood.
One video grabbed our attention. It shows two people dressed in yellow, that neon color construction workers wear, but one of these visitors also had a backpack. When they noticed the security camera, one said "We ain't going in there,” and they left.
Neighbors app and Ring device users have full control of who views their footage. Only the content that a user chooses to make publicly available on Neighbors (by posting it to the app) can be viewed via the Neighbors app or by local law enforcement.
“EXACT LOCATION HIDDEN FOR PRIVACY”
The app doesn't reveal the homeowner's name. A map under the video only shows the general area and a pop-up message says, "exact location hidden for privacy."
But the camera angle in the doorbell video was wide. Among other things, we could see the neighbor's house, a University of Georgia flag, and a front porch swing. We went to the neighborhood searching for the home. It took us two minutes to pinpoint the exact location.
We rang the doorbell. A woman named Rebecca used the doorbell's audio to ask what we wanted. "An interview," we said.
The next day we came back with our own camera and interviewed Rebecca through her doorbell.
"Hi Dave, how are you?" Rebecca asked Huddleston.
Rebecca told us how her camera caught the two men. Then how police found them, discovered some interesting things in those backpacks, and charged them with a felony: Possession of tools for the commission of a crime.
She says the arrests gave her a sense of relief.
"It was kind of violating to know they were peeking in and considering coming into our home," Rebecca said.
Then we told her how posting that video led us right to her front door.
Her reaction? "I was a little taken aback because it shows enough of the distinguishing features of my porch specifically."
We wondered if the Neighbors app would let us change our home address. We tried the address of another Channel 2 producer. Within seconds, we were searching doorbell videos in Alpharetta. Then we entered the business address of WSB-TV. Right away, we could see videos posted in midtown Atlanta.
The managing director of Cyber Security Forensics, Willis McDonald, says by using video security systems, we give up a little piece of our privacy. And not just from people looking at the Ring "Neighbors" app.
"These devices are recording what's going on outside your home," McDonald told Huddleston. By recording it and sending it to the cloud you should remember "That's being stored with someone else."
And what can that company do with your videos? According to Ring doorbell's terms of service, pretty much anything the company wants. Here's an excerpt.
"You hereby grant Ring and its licensees an unlimited, irrevocable, fully paid and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right to re-use, distribute, store, delete, translate, copy, modify, display, sell, create derivative works from and otherwise exploit such Shared Content for any purpose and in any media formats in any media channels without compensation to you."
Let's take just one of those rights you grant the company: The right to sell your video.
In addition to catching strangers on camera, a doorbell video camera is watching when you leave your house and when you get back home. McDonald says that's information a lot of organizations would like to have.
"Those types of things are valuable to ad agencies, to political agencies, all types of different groups that want to buy that information," McDonald said. "Let's call him at 5:40 or let's show up at his door step at 5:45, we know he's going to be home."
A spokesman for Ring told us “Ring can only view videos if: a user has chosen to publicly share a recording on Neighbors; a user provides their consent; or a valid and binding legal demand is properly served on us.”
THE FINE PRINT
McDonald says it's important to read your terms of service.
But, who reads a company’s terms of service? Not Alan Seija, who owns a Nest doorbell.
"It's normally 10 pages long you are scrolling through it while you're signing up for these things, so basically you swipe up and click accept."
Security expert Willis McDonald isn't surprised. "No one reads privacy agreements," he said.
Ring sent us the following statement about privacy:
"We take the privacy and security of our customers’ personal information extremely seriously. In order to improve our service, we view and annotate certain Ring video recordings. These recordings are sourced exclusively from publicly shared Ring videos from the Neighbors app (in accordance with our terms of service), and from a small fraction of Ring users who have provided their explicit written consent to allow us to access and utilize their videos for such purposes. Ring employees do not have access to livestreams from Ring products.
"We have strict policies in place for all our team members. We implement systems to restrict and audit access to information. We hold our team members to a high ethical standard and anyone in violation of our policies faces discipline, including termination and potential legal and criminal penalties. In addition, we have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behavior, we will take swift action against them."
© 2019 Cox Media Group.