Ring cameras are more secure now, but your neighbors still snoop with them

Ring cameras are more secure now, but your neighbors still snoop with them thumbnail

ring, dinged —

Account security for Ring is much improved, but privacy concerns still abound.

A hand-sized black and white device on a wooden table.

Enlarge / An Amazon Ring security camera on display during an unveiling event on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.

Ring, Amazon’s line of cloud-connected home surveillance equipment, faced a high-profile series of camera hacks late last year. That string of breaches—though traumatic for the families that were targeted—has at least finally led to one silver lining: increased security for user accounts.

Two-factor authentication of some kind is now mandatory for all accounts, Ring announced today. Every device owner and authorized user will have to enter a one-time, six-digit code, sent through email or SMS, in order to log in to a Ring account.

While email and SMS are not necessarily the most secure forms of two-factor authentication out there, either is a sight better than what Ring had been mandating before, which was nothing. The ease with which bad actors were able to access huge numbers of Ring cameras, take control of them, and harass homeowners with them was in large part due to weak security on those Ring accounts.

In the wake of those intrusions, Ring first made it mandatory for new device owners to set up two-factor authentication at the time of account creation. Earlier this month, the company chased that up with a new account control panel, making it easier for users to find and opt-in to two-factor authentication; now, finally, the setting is not optional.

Ring also drew unwanted attention a few weeks ago when the Electronic Frontier Foundation published a report outlining how several third-party firms, including Facebook, receive significant amounts of personal data when users launch the Ring app on their phones. Notifications about data sharing with some of those third parties are present in Ring’s privacy policy, but others were never mentioned. Neither were consumers given the chance to opt out.

As part of its announcement, Ring said it is “temporarily pausing the use of most third-party analytics services in the Ring apps and website,” effective immediately. It plans to add opt-out mechanisms for some forms of sharing to the user control center and re-enable that sharing when those options are active. Users can now also opt-out of receiving targeted advertising, though of course they cannot opt out of having their data collected in the first place.

But to what end?

For all their faults, Ring cameras are—in theory, at least—supposed to be good at one job: keeping homeowners safe from neighborhood crime. In reality, however, the cameras seem to more useful as fodder for neighborhood gossip than neighborhood watch.

As of its most recent update on February 13, Ring now boasts 967 partnerships with law enforcement nationwide. So what are these widespread partnerships accomplishing?

Not a whole lot, according to a recent NBC News report. Or at least, not a lot that can actually be quantified.

NBC spoke with 40 police and sheriff departments about the program. The agencies, located in eight different states, all had been partnered with Ring for at least three months. A total of 13 agencies—about a third of the ones NBC spoke with—made zero arrests as a result of Ring footage. Another 13 were able to confirm they had made arrests after reviewing Ring footage. The remaining 14 basically didn’t keep data that would allow them to evaluate the effectiveness of the partnership—even though, in some cases, the agreements went back more than a year.

In Houston, police estimated that Ring footage has been used in perhaps 100 out of that city’s 16,000 burglaries in the past year. Even if the footage from a Ring camera is clear, it may not result in a positive identification, a Houston police spokesperson told NBC: “You have a video of one unknown person in a city of 2.5 million people!… Our limiting factor is not evidence, we have more solvable evidence than we have investigators.”

Property crime has been on a decline in recent years for most of the country anyway, NBC notes, and that holds up in several jurisdictions that partner with Ring. “We don’t have any research data showing that Ring has a correlation to a reduction,” a spokesperson for the Carlsbad Police Department told NBC. “Our residential burglary rate began decreasing before Ring gave us access to their portal. There are more than likely many factors that have led to this decrease.”

Ring itself also had no hard numbers to share with NBC, saying it does not track package thefts captured on doorbell cameras and deferring to local police departments for that data.

Instead, anecdotal evidence seems to support a theory that Ring is best used for the most time-honored neighborhood tradition of all: being nosy.

The Washington Post spoke with dozens of users of smart camera systems to find out how real people use them. The paper’s findings were telling: “In the unscientific survey, most people also replied that they were fine with intimate new levels of surveillance,” the WaPo noted, with one major catch: “As long as they were the ones who got to watch.”

Writer Max Read recently described the experience for New York Magazine: “Moments you’d never have been aware of without the Ring—a stranger stepping on your stoop, or knocking on your door—mount as evidence of possible danger and urban decay,” Read wrote. “Even unquestionably innocuous activity, like me unlocking my own door, is lent the frisson of danger thanks to the security-camera-style footage.”

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