Surveillance cameras have really taken off in the last few years as a home security tool. They have become so popular that in a recent Porch survey, 43.9% of US respondents said they have at least one security camera in their homes. About 25% of respondents even have a camera in their main bedroom.
Most of these security cameras record 24/7 and store footage remotely, usually on a cloud server. Two of the most popular surveillance systems in the market are Google’s Nest cameras and Amazon’s Ring cameras. Recently, people who own these products were dismayed to find out that both Google and Amazon have policies that let police officers obtain camera footage without a warrant — if they state it’s an emergency.
A Watchful Eye
Concerns first arose when The Verge writer Sean Hollister reported last month that Amazon will send video footage to police if they request it, citing an “emergency situation”. Amazon even has a dedicated website page called Amazon Law Enforcement Request Tracker, where officers can fill in details and request footage.
That discovery led to further digging by CNET, which revealed that both Amazon and Google have privacy policies that state they’ll hand over footage to the police in emergencies. Police aren’t required to provide warrants or court orders to obtain the footage. These policies are likely aimed at preventing legal claims against the companies for obstruction of justice in cases of emergency.
These policies don’t just apply to security camera footage. They’re worded in a way that can be theoretically applied to any user data the companies have. In a letter to Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), Amazon said it has provided private Ring videos to law enforcement 11 times in the past year, following an emergency request. Here are Sen. Markey’s questions about it in the letter, which was recently released to the media:
Google spokesperson Kimberly Taylor told The Verge in an email that Google hasn’t supplied any Nest footage in response to an emergency request as of yet. Here’s what Google says about its request for information in emergencies policy:
While Amazon and Google have policies that state that authorities will have to present a warrant, subpoena, or similar court order (in most cases) before they’ll hand over data, both have a similar exception for emergencies.
Other popular security camera product suppliers, including Apple, Wyze, Anker, and Arlo, don’t provide any exceptions in their policies. That means, at least on paper, that police need a warrant or court order to get your camera footage from those companies.
You Don’t Own Your Data, Companies Do
Here’s the big red flag: companies can hand over private residential video footage to police officers without the owners’ consent. The crux is, authorities have a track record of abusing their power. It’s no secret that law officials sometimes take advantage of their positions, and the term ‘emergency situation’ is very broad and open to interpretation.
Part of the problem here is that once you buy a product or create an account, these companies no longer consider your data as your own. Instead, they own your data — and some have no qualms about using or distributing it as they see fit. That’s why so many data protection laws have come into effect in the last few years.
Unfortunately, data protection laws are slow to catch up with reality, and meanwhile, more products (and invasive policies) flood the market every day. Most countries do have laws to protect your privacy if you’re in someone else’s home or on vacation, though. Even if you don’t have security cameras in your home, you should look out for hidden security cameras elsewhere.
Secure Your Home Security System
We live in an era where surveillance is at an all-time high, and inversely, privacy is at an all-time low. While we wait for legislation to (hopefully) catch up, it’s important to carefully consider how you approach internet-connected devices in your home.
Here are a few simple tips that can improve your privacy so you can keep living your life without fear of it being invaded:
- Consider installing a surveillance system with a local video storage solution. It’s more expensive, but storage solutions like NAS are considered secure and relatively budget-friendly.
- Change your security camera’s password to a unique and secure phrase, as cybercriminals can easily guess manufacturer passwords. Invasive company policies aren’t the only concern with home security systems!
- Secure your network with a VPN to prevent third parties like cybercriminals from accessing your cameras. A secure setup with a dedicated VPN IP address can be a good solution to ensure that only you can log into your camera network from anywhere.
- Secure other IoT devices in your home too, because while they’re convenient, they’re also notoriously easy to hack into.