Who is watching, with the smart doorbell? We need more information about this concerning phenomenon, says Thijs Turèl from the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions in Dutch newspaper Trouw.
Last December, the number of burglaries peaked, as is the case every year around that time. This probably led to many smart doorbells under the Christmas tree. Currently, 1 in 8 Dutch households uses such a doorbell, marking a worrisome trend. It is concerning due to its effects on our streets and neighborhoods, and because we are contributing to the creation of a surveillance infrastructure.
Smart doorbells combine a traditional doorbell with a security camera, linked to your smartphone. This allows you to see who was at your door up to six months ago, useful for visitors or when unwelcome individuals are roaming around your house.
Paradoxically, some users of these doorbells feel less secure. They observe everything happening around their house and discuss it anxiously in neighborhood WhatsApp groups. Their subjective sense of security decreases, while objectively it remains unchanged.
Smart doorbells also affect neighbors: 17 percent of Amsterdam residents find them uncomfortable, according to the city's research, and this number is growing. What if the relationship with your neighbors is not great? Are they constantly watching you?
Meanwhile, it's not just neighbors watching neighbors. Almost all smart doorbells are connected to companies like Amazon (Ring) and Google (Nest). Images from Dutch streets are thus sent to the servers of these tech giants on a massive scale.
Ring is known to store deleted videos, allow employees to view the footage, store doorbell activity, and collaborate with the U.S. government. It is likely that security services have access, as Ring already collaborated with two thousand police departments in the U.S. by the end of 2021.
This is uncomfortable enough as it is, let alone if Donald Trump returns to power. Or if it turns out that China is monitoring the doorbells of Chinese brands. In 2022, there was a major uproar over Chinese cameras in public spaces, leading many governments to remove them. However, the number of doorbell cameras is incomparably larger.
Facial recognition in smart doorbells adds to a massive surveillance infrastructure, allowing identification of who is where, when, and with whom. This infrastructure can be exploited for many undesirable purposes.
Is there no regulation in place? Yes, but it doesn't work. Smart doorbells fall under privacy legislation, but the Dutch Data Protection Authority (AP) must assess each case to determine if rules are violated.
And you can forget about that; with this large number of doorbells, there is not enough capacity. Even in the upcoming European AI law, smart doorbells are not prohibited.
Something needs to be done about this. First and foremost, the government should inform the broader public about the risks of these doorbells. Additionally, local authorities should investigate how citizens can defend themselves against the smart doorbells of their neighbors. Additional local regulations, for example.
Lastly, the design. Apparently, doorbells fulfill a need. But how do we ensure they do not violate the privacy of others? Can a type of smart doorbell be designed that is acceptable? How much intelligence should such a doorbell have? Should that data really go to Google and Amazon?
By collectively determining what we want, we can lobby manufacturers and demand adjustments in their products if they want to continue selling them to us.
And regarding the risk of burglary in December: invest in good locks and security, instead of inadvertently shifting the unintended side effects onto society by thoughtlessly opting for a smart doorbell.