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What you need to know about smart camera privacy

I had this gig once at one of the biggest travel review sites in the country. At this job, I was paid to look at user posts, particularly photographs, and flag anything suspicious.

As you can imagine, I saw some really weird things over the course of my employment with this company. Naked people. Lots and lots of naked people. Shots taken underneath toilets. Spiders. Machine guns. And at least one review of a user’s trip… to the moon.

The crazy thing is that those are just the things that people submitted voluntarily. Now imagine what might happen to images or video of you or your family if a bad guy breaks into your fancy new smart home camera. It’s definitely a thought that will skeeve you out if you think about it enough. So, let’s take a closer look at smart camera privacy and see what you can be doing better to protect yourself.

The basic problem with smart camera privacy

We cover these kinds of cameras all the time, so if you’ve spent even a few minutes here at Digital Trends, you’ve certainly seen our articles on smart cameras like Alphabet’s Nest line of smart home equipment, Amazon’s Cloud Cam, and a variety of crowdfunded startup products that vary widely in quality. The trick here is that these kinds of cameras are both WiFi-enabled and usually accessible over the Internet via an app, as well as having the potential to store recorded footage on cloud-based servers. Some also have two-way microphones so you can communicate with subjects or give instructions to people like delivery guys.

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Now, these functions are very useful if you have a secure system and are seeking out specific applications, which may include home security, checking in on children or elderly loved ones, making sure workers are doing their jobs, or looking in on pets. These are incredibly powerful tools.

Set up poorly, though, these smart home devices can also turn into incredibly sophisticated hacking portals that can enable the covert viewing, listening, and recording of anything or anyone that’s within the camera’s line of sight.

Taking a closer look at smart camera hardware

Almost every smart camera device that has been successfully brought to market has had a security breach revealed at some point, whether it’s an actual hacking vulnerability or just a bug that’s been discovered by some enterprising investigator in the smart home market. But here are some basics about smart camera hardware and how it works.

Vivint Smart Home Security System Review
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

There are two main categories of WiFi-enabled smart camera devices: traditional IP, or networked cameras, and more modern smart cameras like the ones manufactured by companies like Alphabet, Amazon, Honeywell, and other brand names like the ones mentioned above.

IP cameras get the most flack for their insecurities, but the truth is that all of these cameras are insecure if you don’t set them up right. Here are just a few of those flaws.

The first thing that comes up is that most people are lazy. The vast majority of IP camera owners just leave their devices configured with the default username and password and then connect them to the Internet. Beyond even sophisticated hacking, this means that anyone can watch the feed just by visiting the device’s IP address online.

The good news is that if someone hacks your handy surveillance camera, it’s against the law.

Modern smart cameras are a little more sophisticated in that they require owners to use an online account system to access them instead of a default username and password. One of their vulnerabilities, considered a feature by the manufacturer, is their ability to send live video feeds and recorded video clips both through push notifications to apps and to cloud-based storage systems.

However, time and again, both hackers and security experts have proven that nearly any device can be configured to watch and listen remotely with remarkably high-definition quality — and — all indications that the device is monitoring you, such as lights and audio cues, can be disabled so that the camera appears inactive. In audio mode, the range and sensitivity of the microphone can be increased while video resolution can always be zoomed and sometimes enhanced.

The law, and ways it can affect how you use your smart camera

First of all, the good news is that if someone hacks your handy surveillance camera, it’s against the law. The critical legal issue is that recording generally requires the consent of all parties to be monitored and recorded, and that everyone is supposed to be afforded a reasonable expectation of privacy. This has a couple of repercussions for using smart cameras, however.

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For companies, it’s pretty obvious — you have to tell both customers and employees they’re being monitored, and don’t put cameras in creepy places like bathrooms or locker rooms. For homeowners, it’s a good idea to put up a sign to warn that you’re recording; not only does it offer you some legal cover, but it’s also a potential deterrent to a burglar or package thief.

Another law that comes into play is known colloquially as the Wiretap Act, while the official criminal status is the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986, 18 USC 2510. It prohibits the interception of audio communications without consent, but does not address video records.

However, there are other places to get hung up legally. One is putting up cameras that record more than just your own home. Capturing footage of neighbors or people who are in public spaces can be dodgy as well. In the U.S., it’s generally legal to secretly record video in your home.

If there’s no portal into your private life, there’s no way for bad guys to peek in on you.

Also, share footage sparingly. Yes, we live in an age when virtually every moment of some people’s lives is posted to some social media site or another, but there have been instances where smart camera owners have posted clips of “suspicious-looking characters” on places like Ring’s social network app.

You see videos of package pirates show up on local television stations every holiday season, for example. But you aren’t the police and unless you’ve taken footage of an actual crime, not only might you be accusing an innocent person of wrongdoing, but you can also contribute to racial profiling, which is seriously not cool.

Ways to protect your privacy

First, there’s the obvious one: don’t use a smart camera. Ever. If there’s no portal into your private life, there’s no way for bad guys to peek in on you, short of sneaking in a pinhole camera like that guy in the Splinter Cell videogame, and if you’re in that boat, you’re probably a bad guy anyway.

For video, you can do that Mark Zuckerberg trick of covering up the video camera with tape, but that still doesn’t help you with audio and you’ve effectively ruined the functionality that the device offers in the first place.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

If you ever do become suspicious of a device, it’s worth the precaution to kill the thing until you can have it checked out by a professional. Turn it off, unplug it, or otherwise disable it and it’s a good rule of thumb to shut down smart devices when you aren’t using them. Don’t use unfamiliar Wi Fi networks.

If you must use them, learn to configure your smart home devices. Cameras in particular have user settings that can be refined to share as little data as possible. The same goes for cloud-based storage of images, videos, and audio. The fewer holes you have in your privacy settings, the less likely it is for abuse to occur.

If you must buy a smart home camera, get one from a name brand, such as Nest or Amazon.

If you’re the DIY sort, you can also set up your security system that stores footage on local devices, generally either a home server or an SD card. The real challenge here is that you have to wire up your house and install these devices yourself, as well as figuring out how to check and regulate your internal storage device. If you’re that kind of guy (or gal), you’ve probably done it already.

Oh, yeah. Subscription fees. You remember why printers are so cheap? It’s because the bloody ink costs you a fortune over time. It’s the same with security cameras. Always include the subscription fee for things like cloud-based storage when you’re deciding what to buy. As we’ve mentioned, cloud-based storage is a fairly robust security vulnerability with smart home cameras.

The basic stuff to remember

Let’s finish with the basics for Smart Home Camera Privacy Security:

  • Buy a relatively simple “smart” security camera with fewer bells and whistles, which generally means less vulnerabilities.
  • If you must buy a smart home camera, get one from a name brand, such as Nest or Amazon, because the chances of an Asian off-brand camera having some serious security bugs is pretty damn high.
  • Passwords: learn how to create good ones, not only those that you can remember, but also ones that can’t be easily cracked.
  • Two-factor authentication is your friend, at least for now. Yes, it’s a pain. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s pretty simple. You can’t get cash from an ATM without both your bank card and a pin number. The same applies with your smart home stuff. It can be a password plus some widget of information that only you know, or a code that gets sent to your home or email in order for you to access your stuff. Either way, it’s a good way to keep bad guys from breaking into your smart home network.
  • Last note: don’t buy used stuff. It might seem tempting, because it’s cheap after all, but it’s also a great way for the original owner of this junk to spy on you. While it’s not necessarily perfect, buying new is the only way to guarantee that a camera hasn’t been tampered with, or, more importantly, that it still isn’t connected to the old owner’s monitoring services.

Looking to the future

Look, we’ve just been talking about smart home security cameras. The scary part is that the smart home market is expanding at an exponential rate and there’s a camera in a ton of things other than your smartphone and your security camera now.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

All the things we’ve talked about already can also apply to video doorbells, all the weird new entertainment devices coming out, and totally counter-intuitive devices like smart home kitchen devices. Yes, your microwave might get hacked and spy on you one day. Sleep tight.

The good news is that there are white hat hackers out there dreaming up things to protect us. Artificial intelligence is coming along nicely, which might, for example, be able to mask your face and accompanying biometric features from prying eyes.

That said, things are about to get weird. Smart home cameras provide a lot of functionality and peace of mind for a lot of dedicated users right now. The potential for these new products to provide security and communication in schools, homes, and businesses is nearly unlimited at this point. But as the smart home evolves and smart cameras are integrated more and more into our lifestyles — not to mention voice control and AI-driven interpretation of our daily habits, smart home cameras could be just one small part of a very different world that’s coming sooner than we think.

Clayton Moore
Clayton Moore’s interest in technology is deeply rooted in the work of writers like Warren Ellis, Cory Doctorow and Neal…
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