Security cameras are a great way to protect your property, but are they privacy nightmares waiting to happen?
With the prices of good-quality cameras dropping to very reasonable rates, it's now quite affordable to wrap our homes with seamless blankets of surveillance. And with their smart internet-connected features and cloud storage services, we can even view them remotely from anywhere we may be.
But are we paying a price for this convenience? One report says so. In fact, it's saying that one popular brand may be allowing its employees access to customer videos more than they ought to. We have the real story.
Is Ring giving its employees access to user videos?
Alarming reports about the video doorbell and security camera company Ring have surfaced recently, claiming that the Amazon-owned company has been giving its employees unnecessary access to unencrypted video files and live feeds from some customer cameras. But are these claims credible?
The original report from The Intercept said that beginning in 2016, the company gave its Ukraine-based research and development team unlimited access to Amazon S3 cloud folder that has "every video created by every Ring camera around the world."
The team was also provided a database that linked each video file to the corresponding Ring customer.
Ring's "data operators"
The report also said that U.S.-based Ring executives and engineers were given high-level access to the company's technical support portal, allowing them access to "unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras."
The Intercept revealed that the Ukraine team was given high-level access to this data due to the weaknesses in Ring's facial recognition technology at that time. To improve its artificial intelligence, Ring used "data operators" to manually tag and label objects as part of its "training process."
However, not only are they tagging objects captured with Ring's outdoor and video doorbells, Intercept's source said that they were tagging interior cameras, as well.
Although the report said that there is no evidence that this access was ever abused nor used for malicious purposes, these revelations do raise questions about Ring's and consequently, Amazon's, internal practices.
In response to these allegations, Ring sent us this official statement:
"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 videos. These videos 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."
We're not taking any sides here but Ring's statement actually makes a lot of sense. What the original report did not clearly specify is what type of videos are being accessed. Do they include private Ring videos or are they just the public videos shared by Ring users through its Neighbors service?
In case you didn't know, Ring's Neighbors service is a community-based feed that lets users easily share their captured videos with their neighbors and report suspicious behavior. This means that any video a user posts on its Neighbors service automatically becomes publicly shared.
If this is the case, then employees having access to this folder of public videos shouldn't be a big issue, at all, and it's all well within Ring's terms of service.
Ring also stated that it has strict guidelines for its employees and it does not provide its employees with access to livestreams of Ring devices:
"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."
Let this be a reminder
Now that we've heard both sides of the story, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Ring is one of the most popular consumer camera brands in the world, and whether true or not, reports like this can potentially (and unfairly) damage any brand moving forward.
But again, although we still don't know the full extent of what Ring employees have access to, let this be a reminder that you should be mindful of what videos you share with the public, either through social media sites or like in this case, Ring's community service.
I know it can sometimes be tedious, but it's important that you read through each service's terms of service and privacy policies and understand your rights regarding the videos, images and posts your share.
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