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Doorbell cameras are becoming more and more common outside front doors across the United States and beyond, installed to improve safety and convenience for homeowners.
But these devices are not without controversy, with many people questioning whether they constitute an invasion of privacy – and whether they should even be legal.
Read on to explore the pros, cons, controversies, and laws surrounding doorbell cameras.
What are Doorbell Cameras?
Camera doorbells, which are sometimes referred to as smart doorbells or video doorbells, are high-tech electronic devices that include a doorbell button and a small camera, encased together into one single gadget. It will look a lot like a traditional doorbell, but with a lens usually positioned above the button.
The camera allows you to watch a live feed and make recordings when somebody is at your door. It is half doorbell, half security camera. New features are being added all the time too, such as two-way communication capabilities.
But how does a doorbell camera work?
- The doorbell camera is wired to chime just like a traditional doorbell but is also connected to WiFi.
- Most devices have the option to either stream or record video using the camera. Recorded video usually requires cloud storage and a monthly subscription fee.
- Some devices use motion-activated sensors to start recording when someone approaches your door. Others are activated when the doorbell is pressed.
- When the camera is activated, an alert is sent to a connected cell phone. By opening the connected app, you will be able to see what is happening on your doorstep in real-time.
- Many devices now include a speaker or two-way talk function, allowing you to give remote instructions or warnings through the doorbell by using your phone.
For most people, a doorbell camera is an added security feature that gives them instant real-time insight.
The best doorbell cameras available include models by Ring, Nest, and Arlo.
Pros and Cons of Doorbell Cameras
The popularity of doorbell cameras is rising all the time, with many people ditching their old and outdated chimes for a modern option with a range of extra features.
But with any new innovation or high-tech device, there are bound to be pros and cons.
- Ward off would-be burglars
- Record footage of any wrongdoing on your doorstep
- Check that your children have arrived home safely
- Give instructions to delivery drivers
- Monitor your home at all times, no matter where you are
- Added costs – including initial price and subscription fees
- The need for additional devices at all entrances to be fully secure
- Over-sensitive motion sensors
- Cloud security issues
- Legal controversies
The pros speak for themselves. By installing a video doorbell, you can make your home more secure and give yourself and your family peace of mind.
Some of the cons are a matter of practicality. Of course, a device with a quality camera built-in will cost more than a conventional doorbell. And if you want to fully secure your home, you might need additional devices installed, rather than just one at the front door.
But there are other issues to take into account. These include how secure your own details are within the cloud recording system, as well as the various controversies surrounding the use of doorbell cameras that we will discuss in this article.
Are Doorbell Cameras Legal?
Let’s cut to the chase. Are doorbell cameras legal in California and across the rest of the U.S., and are there any concerns regarding the invasion of privacy?
First of all, video and audio recording doorbells are absolutely legal and can be safely installed on all kinds of premises. But there are some rules and restrictions that apply.
Privacy and recording laws vary by state, with some federal laws also covering all areas.
Federal Privacy Laws
- The law states that people are entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy. This means that no recording should take place in locations with the assumption of privacy, such as bedrooms and bathrooms. This obviously does not apply to outdoor video doorbells.
- Generally speaking, it is fine to record pictures and images in public spaces. This covers doorbell camera users for footage recorded pointing out at driveways and public roads. There is no assumption of privacy outdoors in public locations.
- The laws for audio recording are slightly different. Audio recording is allowed when at least one party in the conversation has provided consent. If the doorbell records a conversation between you and another person, that would be fine as you have consented. Conversations recorded between two other parties might be subject to legal scrutiny.
As the federal laws outline, you should have no legal issues in using a Ring doorbell, or another similar device, as long as it is recording a public area with no expectation of privacy.
State Privacy Laws
- In California, there are more specific recording and privacy laws in place. They state that you cannot make a recording of communications that would reasonably be considered confidential.
The stricter statutes in California may apply to recordings captured on doorbell cameras in some rare instances, but should not impact your ability to record in most cases. As long as you are using the doorbell camera as intended, you should not run into any legal issues.
Video Doorbell Terms and Conditions
When you purchase one of these devices, it will come with a series of terms and conditions that you agree to by installing it.
But these terms are nothing to worry about. Most will essentially mandate that you abide by state and federal laws in your use of the device. Some terms provided by Ring include not pointing the camera at public roads, but this is a suggestion rather than a legally binding regulation.
Cameras pointing at public roads, driveways, and other open areas, will almost always be legal. You should avoid pointing a video doorbell at specific private property, such as directly at your neighbor’s windows.
It is also important to note that doorbell cameras are still pretty new. There may be developments in the law written specifically to keep up with this growing trend, and as a user, you should keep up with what you are and are not allowed to do.
Doorbell Camera Controversies
We now know doorbell cameras are perfectly legal when they are used correctly. But they have not escaped controversy, with a series of issues and legal problems arising in recent years.
- Companies accused of surveilling users
Top video doorbell company Ring has shared user information with third-party companies, according to an investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A report shows that the Ring app automatically shares information including names, sensor data, and private IP addresses with several companies, including Facebook.
- Cameras can be hacked
There have been several instances of WiFi security cameras being hacked. One incident saw a Ring camera installed in a bedroom accessed remotely, with the hacker accessing video footage and communicating through the device speaker. This has sparked a series of lawsuits against camera companies. While there are fewer concerns surrounding outside doorbells, it still raises serious security questions.
- Data stolen from the cloud
Thousands of doorbell camera users had their personal data revealed online in a massive leak. Device owners had a huge range of information leaked, including their camera names, locations, footage, email addresses, passwords, and more. This information was all stored on Ring’s cloud data platform, which was raided by hackers. The company blamed the victims for using weak passwords but should be doing more to secure their information.
- Ring employees fired after accessing video
Four Ring employees were fired for data abuse after they were found to have accessed client video footage. While the operators were allowed to view some footage in order to carry out their employment duties, all four were found to have viewed more data than was necessary, infringing on customer rights. This shone a light on some of the added security risks surrounding remote access cameras.
- Doorbell cameras are a challenge for the FBI
While law enforcement officers might be able to use doorbell camera footage to help solve crimes (more on that in the next section), the FBI has described cameras as presenting a new challenge. Officials fear the devices could be used by criminals as an early warning system to help them avoid searches, raids, and arrests.
This is just a snapshot of the controversies surrounding video doorbells. Some of these incidents have resulted in lawsuits against doorbell companies, and it is important to be aware of these issues.
Doorbell camera companies are always looking to improve their systems, adding security dashboards and multi-factor authentication to try to secure their devices. But there will always be risks, as shown in the instances above.
Can Doorbell Camera Companies Share Your Data with Police?
Video doorbell companies, most notably Ring, have formed partnerships with police departments across the U.S. to help officers use doorbell camera footage to solve crimes.
In fact, Ring has created a portal specifically for law enforcement investigations. However, Ring is not allowed to simply hand over footage to the police. The footage belongs to the device owner.
The police will have to ask you if they can view your camera footage, and it is up to you whether you grant access or not. The only exception to this rule is if the police have a warrant for the recordings. Many victims of crimes will share their recordings voluntarily, while officers often meet resistance when approaching parties who are not involved in the crime.
This connection between Ring and the police is not without its controversies. Some critics have slammed the link-up for turning police officers into doorbell camera salesmen who encourage citizens to install these devices.
Ring has also previously provided police departments with background statistics and information on device users, helping officers to target doorbell recordings. The company now claims it has changed its stance and is no longer giving out this kind of private information.
Doorbell Cameras with Facial Recognition Software
In the past, there have been discussions about introducing facial recognition capabilities to Ring devices, while some other video doorbells, including Nest devices, have already used some forms of facial recognition.
The idea behind the addition would be to scan any footage recorded and alert residents if someone looking or acting suspiciously is recorded in their neighborhood. It could also theoretically be linked to “most wanted” lists and police databases to track and catch criminals.
Critics have pointed out that the current facial recognition software is still under development, and frequently makes mistakes. It would be very risky to put it into a product used by the general public, potentially causing unwarranted fear and panic.
The current position of Ring is that it does not use facial recognition technology in its devices, and will not offer such services to law enforcement. But Nest cameras do use some form of the software already, and there is no knowing how these stances will change in the future.
Doorbell Cameras on Rental Properties
What happens when a doorbell camera is installed at a rental property? Who owns the recorded footage, and how does that alter guidance when it comes to invasion of privacy?
This definitely complicates the issue of home recording device legality. For tenants, it may feel like an invasion of privacy if their landlord has installed devices with the ability to record comings and goings. But for the landlord, it may be considered a necessary level of security on their property.
- In accordance with the law, landlords cannot install cameras in private locations, such as within the home.
- But landlords may be within their rights to install doorbell cameras that point out at public spaces.
- Landlords should be transparent about the presence of such devices and include wording in the property lease managing the use of video doorbells.
- Renters should read their leases carefully, and ask specifically about the use of doorbell cameras if they are uncomfortable.
Another issue may be a tenant wishing to install a video doorbell, with the landlord sharing liability for any misuse.
- Landlords should include language in any lease giving them discretion over installing a device. The lease should specify a make, model, method of installation, and give the landlord the right to refuse or remove the device.
Video Doorbell Lawsuits
Most new forms of technology are met with some criticism and skepticism, and doorbell cameras are no exception. In fact, several different lawsuits have been filed in relation to the use of video doorbells.
These lawsuits cover a range of different issues. For example, one class action claim was aimed at Ring for failing to disclose its monthly service fee to buyers.
Other lawsuits have been filed due to cloud data breaches and leaks, employee misconduct, and failing to properly secure footage access.
There is a lot to absorb with these devices. They offer increased security and home protection but are not without some potential problems. Please use this article to check the laws relating to video doorbells and recordings to find out if you might have a legal claim.
Bisnar Chase is a personal injury law firm that handles a range of cases, including product liability and class actions. We are not able to take on all cases, but take pride in providing expert support, guidance, and legal representation to victims when possible.
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