Smart Home Tech, Police, and Your Privacy: Year in Review 2019

By Matthew Guariglia

If 2019 confirmed anything, it is that we should not trust the microphones and cameras that large corporations sell us to put inside and near our homes. Thanks to the due diligence of reporters, public records requesters, and privacy researchers and activists, consumers have been learning more and more about how these “smart” home technologies can be hacked, exploited, or utilized by the police and other law enforcement agencies.

Because many technologies that record audio and video store their data on a cloud maintained by the company, police can gain access to stored content by presenting a warrant to those companies—bypassing consumers altogether. For instance, in November, police in Florida obtained a warrant for the recordings from an Amazon Echo that may have overheard a crime. This means that whether people think their Alexa is listening or not, their Alexa could be listening. Because Amazon stores and maintains that data, things said in the device’s presence can be made accessible to police via a warrant presented to the company.

Law enforcement’s access isn’t the only concern associated with smart speakers.  Researchers recently learned you could hack an Alexa or Google Home by shooting a laser at it.

In 2019, however, no piece of household tech has worried privacy advocates more than Amazon’s surveillance doorbell, Ring. The year began with the revelation of an exploit that could leave footage and audio transmissions vulnerable to third-party attackers and ended with the discovery that Ring cameras made home Wi-Fi passwords available in plain text. And in between, there was plenty more uncovered that should give us all pause.

In addition, the year ended with a bang for Ring as reports surfaced from all over the country that malicious actors were breaking into people’s Ring cameras, terrorizing families, and telling small children that the voice they hear is Santa Claus. Some of these hacks were even being recorded for a podcast that broadcasted the results of pranksters harassing Ring owners from their own devices. Between data leaks and hacks, consumer guides have even started turning their backs on Ring cameras.

This year, reporters revealed that Ring initiated over 600 partnerships with police departments. In addition to creating opportunities for police departments to get free Ring cameras, the partnership also gave officers access to a special portal that allowed them to bulk request footage from users within a specific geographical radius.

These partnerships grew so quickly and with such little oversight and transparency that a number of Senators have written letters to Amazon asking them to clarify their policies on issues like face recognition, inter-agency law enforcement footage sharing, and footage of pedestrians and neighbors that live and walk past Ring cameras.

EFF has been one of the leading voices on how Ring and other smart home devices jeopardize the privacy of users and in Ring’s case their neighbors. In August, we wrote about how Ring presented a perfect storm of privacy concerns. Later that same month as reporting revealed more about police partnerships, we talked about our specific concerns with these secretive relationships.

Attempts to make Ring understand our concerns about these products led nowhere, so we launched our campaign to get Shaq to the table. Since 2016, Shaquille O’Neal has been a very visible spokesperson for and a partial owner of Ring. Given his continued role in promoting Ring-police partnerships by hosting events at police conferences, we thought he might be the person to reach out to. That’s why we launched and asked people to tweet at Shaq and ask him to sit down with the privacy experts at EFF to discuss the potential harms this technology could cause.

In 2020, we’ll continue to fight to protect the privacy and civil liberties threatened by these increasingly pervasive smart home technologies that may reveal far more information about consumers then they realize.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2019.

Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and privacy at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is a frequent contributor to the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock and his bylines have also appeared in the Washington Post and Motherboard. Matthew will be a visiting scholar in the department of history at UC Berkeley and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole.

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