“Ring” Doorbell and “Neighbors” App Cause Privacy Concerns

Laura BednarCybersecurity and VulnerabilitiesLeave a Comment

Ring Doorbell Neighbors Expose Location

The popular video doorbell system, Ring, is one of many technological innovations that was created to make our lives easier and more secure. However, a recent study by Gizmodo found that these devices may not be protecting consumer privacy as they had promised.

The company Ring is owned by Amazon and manufactures home security products like motion-detecting cameras and video doorbells. They also offer a security app known as “Neighbors.” This allows users to send out any suspicious activity and the app will send out alerts of real-time crime and safety concerns.

While in theory, this app would allow people to be more aware of their surroundings and any potential danger in their area. But researchers at Gizmodo have found reason to believe this app and the business practices of the Ring doorbell manufacturers are exposing user’s locations thus breaching their privacy.

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Location, Location, Location

Gizmodo began their experiment by acquiring data over a month’s time. The data points were connected to 65,800 individual posts shared by users of the Neighbors app. What they found was that the network traffic produced unexpected data, including hidden geographic coordinates connected to each post up to six decimal precision. This means location information could be pinpointed up to a square inch of ground.

When a user posts to the Neighbors app, the location is given of where the incident took place, not the address location. It is then displayed as happening at a nearby intersection to protect the user’s privacy even more.

Although the coordinates are hidden, Gizmodo produced a map depicting the estimated locations of tens of thousands of Ring cameras across fifteen cities. Some of these included Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Oakland, Boston, Chicago, and others.

How Are They Found?

Posts on the Neighbors app can be accessed by anyone both nationally and internationally who also has the app. Ring’s website will explain that with the app, users post from their “radius” so as not to give away their specific location, leading users to believe that when they post, only people in their general area near the radius will see the alert. However, the posts are public to anyone with the Neighbors app.

A PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) conducted research and was able to find the location of every Ring video posted on the app since 2017. Consumers do not have to own a Ring doorbell in order to use the app. Those who were included in the data sets from both the Gizmodo and MIT research studies were Ring camera owners who opted to share footage using the app.

To find which of the video posts could have originated from a Ring doorbell, Gizmodo used filters for categories of “Ring” or “Video Alert.” The results were shocking in that some coordinates were accurate enough to place someone directly in front of a Ring device, which is between four and six feet from the home addresses volunteered by neighbors.

Ring Not the “Authority” on Privacy

Ring promises their customers that they have a choice in what information, if any, is shared with law enforcement officers. Police departments who partner with Ring companies must request footage with a date, time, and location on a map. There are no names associated with the owners so that they do not receive any repercussions for denying access.

If customers do consent to allowing police officers to view their doorbell footage, a Mozilla Researcher said that once police have access, they can save the video indefinitely. With the video and a general idea of the vicinity in which the video came from, it is not rocket science for a police officer or an individual on the app to determine a camera’s location.

The Guardian reported that Ring shared maps with the police showing the locations of active cameras while CNET reported that Ring gave police heat maps that showed concentrated areas where the cameras were.

A security researcher later said that if a police officer zoomed in on the heat maps, a circle appeared around individual cameras. This observation came after the researcher, Shreyas Gandlur, saw the maps, though Ring denied these claims.

“It’s funny how even the smallest technical improvements can have such a profound impact upon our social norms and concerns. Who would have thought that what amounts to a video doorbell could trigger such concerns, but when its coupled with geolocation and aggregation from other Ring doorbells, here we are,” said Director of Forensics at Secure Data, Allan Buxton.

Cameras Cameras Everywhere and No Privacy to be Found

The increase in camera usage by Ring and other home security products leaves critics to believe that it is only a matter of time until people can’t leave their homes without being recorded. Outdoor cameras on residential homes may capture people walking into nearby sensitive buildings such as a medical clinic or a law office that works strictly with immigration cases.

The consistent technological development in the world is a way to make people’s lives easier and advance as a society, at least for those with a “glass half full” mentality. However, with each new device or network, there is a chance for cybercrime and invasion of privacy. There may be no way to completely protect yourself from the dangers of connected devices, but there is a solution when you are the victim of cybercrime.

Secure Forensics has examiners with years of experience detecting and stopping cybercrimes such as data breaches, fraud, cyberbullying, and more. After thoroughly examining your device for evidence, we create a court-admissible report of what we found to be used to bring your perpetrator to justice. Learn more about how Secure Forensics can help with your digital privacy concerns and more by calling 1-800-288-1407.