Ring Camera - What If My Neighbor Has One?

Your neighbor installs a Ring camera, and you are concerned that the thing can watch you come and go. Of course, your neighbor will get a notification every time you walk in front of the camera, and considering how addicted most people are to their cell phones and stop everything to check a notification, the gross paranoia of present-day America is that your neighbor will know every time you come and go.

Even worse if the camera in an apartment complex is set up in such a way that the Hal9000 can peer past your shoulder into your house whenever the door cracks open. So should be concerned when we first step outside and see that the Burbs next door have placed a camera pointing in the vicinity of your door? This is the exact situation in a recent r/slash video. You should watch the full exchange, but here are a few clips.

Of course, the focus on the clip here looks only at the positives. These are the reasons you may want a Ring camera ever peering at your front steps.

Why a Ring Makes Sense

Security cameras are a good thing in general, and Ring has created a camera that is available to the masses. They are cheap (and all similar products on the market are cheap), but the trade-off is they connect into big data servers. But we will talk more about that later.

The average person may want a security camera looking outside to capture the swash bucklers of the high suburbers...that is the porch pirates looking to steal packages from consumerized shoppers forced to buy gadgets online. To be sure, the pirates are not looking for your subscription mac & cheese, but the cameras, phones, and other techno-gadgets we have been addicted into buying.

The scenario here, however, is one of looking at your porch versus looking at a common area shared by everyone. We can probably all agree that a camera looking at your front porch in a suburban neighborhood is certainly different than a camera in front a common area with many shared doors. Sure that one Ring can protect the whole group of doors from the pirate, but at what cost? This is what we are examine next.

The Inner Workings of the Ring

Ring was purchased by Amazon for about $1.5 Billion dollars in 2018. This surveillance acquisition complimented the voice analysis company Alexa and the web services company AWS, which is also used frequently by law enforcement.

Of course the website will grab the usual suspects for advertising, the camera itself has some give and take. Allegedly, if we can believe the company, the Ring doorbells do not record or store any data by default. You can set it up to connect to your phone and receive notifications when the camera detects movement or you can live stream the feed from your device.

Of course, they are always pushing their Ring Protect plan which will store all the motion activated clips in the cloud for a period of time. They also push the Neighborhood app to give your neighbors and local police access to the videos you have selected to share with them. These are stored on AWS, and the the videos are transmitted and stored encrypted. But while they are encrypted, it is not zero knowledge. This means that they are stored encrypted on company servers, but the company has access to the encryption keys. This is made clear in that you can authorize a support team member to view data. This means that a rogue employee can gain unauthorized access to the data. Additionally, police can gain access to the data on the servers.

Ring has law enforcement transparency reports since 2019. The low number of requests for that year (about 536) suggests that people just did not have as many cameras, or they only logged data for half a year. The requests shot up to over 1600 the following year and the requests have doubled since then. In the first six months of 2021, Ring received over 2500 requests and the number rose to over 3000 requests in the first six months of 2022. Reports also surfaced of police gaining access to data without permission of the customer, a violation of the policies that Ring states on their website...so pardon me if I do not believe they are not recording more information than they say.

The Real Problem with Ring

There were initial problems with Ring in that when Amazon first bought the company, everything was unencrypted and all employees had access to everyone's data feeds. This was apparently fixed and the company added encryption, but that is not enough.

Controversy arose in 2019 when leaked documents suggested that Amazon was working on a facial ID platform based on Ring to identify "suspicious persons" spotted by the network of Ring cameras. Part of this was the confirmed use of Ukrainian sub contractors to annotate Ring footage with facial recognition notes. Amazon denied the use of Facial Recognition, but the documents were pretty clear.

Additionally, as mentioned prior, the encryption is not zero-knowledge, so the employees do have access to the ring footage that is on the server. Several employees were terminated by Ring for accessing the data without consent. But this is the problem itself...rules and laws do not prevent access to information that is available...there for the taking. The biggest threat model in any company is the employees who are working there, so letting Amazon have your ring data is already asking for trouble.

Finally, we have seen already how many law enforcement requests are being made to the company, and this is compounded by the fact that police are the drivers of encouraging people to use the Neighborhood app and over 600 police departments have created partnerships with Ring, being able to access the footage in the Neighborhood program. But you may not have known that, because you didn't read the terms of service.

Of course, police accessing your videos without a warrant is easily a violation of the fourth amendment, but many people are not raising an issue about this.

These things taken together, there are fundamental issues with Ring and it should not be forced upon people who do not want be to seen or recorded by it.

The Real World Response

Security cameras are a good thing to protect your property, but if you share common areas, you should indeed consider the other people who use that space with a product that has many questionable ties. While IP camera that does not feed into a global-national company with questionable motives is a better solution, such a system is more expensive and more difficult to set up.

If you do decide to use a Ring camera, whether it is in your own isolated property or sharing common space, it is probably better to not consent to storing your images on Amazon servers and not participate in the Neighborhood app. Also, be courteous to make sure your camera cannot see into someone else's apartment.

Like all other things in life, the easier something is to use, the more risk one takes on. I would say figuring out how to use an IP camera system that does not feed into a surveillance product is a better way to manage security. But if you are into the IoT solutions, invest time to discover how to use Home Assistant, which is a FOSS IoT platform. Home Assistant is a self-hosted open source platform that will work with several home automation tools including Ring cameras. This will bypass Amazon servers and use your own servers instead.

If neighbors complain about a camera that can see into their house to can monitor their coming and going, it may be best to figure out a better solution to your security.

I hope this has been informative, and I also hope that you will take the time to learn some new skills in technology to break your dependence on big companies with questionable motives.