Do High-Tech Video Recording Cameras Invade Your Privacy?

Photo by Ron Lach

Throughout Philadelphia, people are concerned about violence and crime. There is hardly a day that goes by that the mainstream media doesn’t cover another carjacking, another shooting, and another horror. In addition to violent crime, many people believe a lack of civility puts all of us at risk.

In response, corporations are marketing cameras and security systems. People wanting to protect themselves and their families are buying the systems in record numbers. Strategy Analytics, a company that covers the marketing of security systems, reports that 7.9 million camera doorbells were sold last year.

The largest seller, Ring, a subsidiary of Amazon, sold 1.4 million units, most with a subscription that saves a recording from the installed camera. Many people don’t think about who has access to these recordings, if and how they invade your privacy, and what, if any, protections consumers have from corporations viewing videos recorded in living rooms and bedrooms.

It may seem like a paranoid thought that a corporation would allow its employees to spy on the people it sells to, but that is exactly what Amazon has been doing with the ring system.

On May 31st of this year, “The Federal Trade Commission charged home security camera company Ring with compromising its customers’ privacy by allowing any employee or contractor to access consumers’ private videos, and by failing to implement basic privacy and security protections, enabling hackers to take control of consumers’ accounts, cameras, and videos.”

In the FTC complaint, it is alleged “Despite promising greater security as its products’ core feature, Ring ignored information security considerations when management believed they would interfere with growth. In pursuit of rapid product development, before September 2017, Ring did not limit access to customers’ video data to employees who needed access to perform their job functions (e.g., customer support, improvement of that product, etc.).

“As a result of this dangerously overbroad access and lax attitude toward privacy and security, employees and third-party contractors were able to view, download, and transfer customers’ sensitive video data for their own purposes. For example, between June and August 2017, a Ring employee viewed thousands of video recordings belonging to at least 81 unique female users (including customers and Ring employees) of Ring Stick Up Cams. The employee focused his prurient searches on cameras with names indicating that they surveilled an intimate space, such as “Master Bedroom,” “Master Bathroom,” or “Spy Cam.” On hundreds of occasions during this three-month period, the employee perused female customers’ and employees’ videos, often for an hour or more each day. Undetected by Ring, the employee continued spying for months. Ring failed to detect this inappropriate access through any technical means. . .

This approach to access meant that Ring’s employees and third-party contractors had dangerous—and unnecessary—access to highly sensitive data.

In many instances, the bad actors were not just passively viewing customers’ sensitive video data. Rather, the bad actors took advantage of the camera’s two-way communication functionality to harass, threaten, and insult individuals—including elderly individuals and children—whose rooms were monitored by Ring cameras, and to set off alarms and change important device settings. Examples of the harassment, slurs, and threats that consumers experienced include the following: a. Several women lying in bed heard hackers curse at them; b. Several children were the objects of hackers’ racist slurs; c. A teenager was sexually propositioned; d. An 87-year old woman in an assisted living facility was sexually propositioned and physically threatened.

And here is the amazing part: after finding the gross invasion of privacy, threats, and illegal activities, the FTC agreed to settle the complaint for a fine of $ 5,800,000 and the promise that Amazon will not do it again.

Amazon is supposed to do its best to notify the injured people, but there is no guarantee they will. No one will be fired; no one will go to jail. Amazon makes 469 billion dollars a year, or $895,833 every minute. The 5.8 million dollar fine is less than what Amazon makes every 10 minutes.

How do they get away with it? Could it be the power of campaign contributions and the movement to de-regulate all businesses?

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