Inside the secret life of pet cameras costing owners their privacy
In December 2019, a Georgia-based couple purchased a Security Camera Ring to keep an eye on their puppy, Beau, while they went to work. Three weeks later, the two-way pet video and audio monitor sounded a man’s voice. “Waking up! I can see you in bed,” the voice yelled at the woman followed by a series of curses. At one point, the man even started talking to his pet. “Hello! Hi! Come here, pup, ”he said, with applause sounds in the background.
Terrified for their safety, the couple reported the incident to the local police and Ring. After reviewing their notification history, they also discovered that someone had hacked into their account four times, within three weeks of purchase. Welcome to the secret lives of pet owners, a worrying privacy threat that is currently at the mercy of WiFi-enabled monitors loaded with treat dispensers, laser pointing games, and two-way audios and videos.
A controversial necessity
Do you have a four-legged friend who lives rent-free in your apartment? Are they tearing up your couch, scratching on the door, and sulking all the time you’re away for a living together? Of course you have had enough physical proof if they chew your bathroom slippers and wet the carpet, but how do you know and make sure they are happy and engaged in your absence? Cue pet monitors, a space age invention guaranteed to ease your separation anxiety.
Whether it’s letting you communicate with your trusted companion or monitoring them around the clock, pet monitors come with a range of features on the market today. Its HD quality ensures that every little detail of your home is captured while its wide viewing angles make it easier to spot your pet in the most elusive corners of the room they sit in. Don’t even get me started on motion sensors, night vision, and the two-way audio and video system. Some of these monitors also have a guest portal that offers secure video streaming of your pet’s antics to the rest of your family and friends. Wait what?
“If you share pet ownership with someone else or want others to see how amazing your pet is, you can grant them guest access to your feed without having to share the password.” password from your account » The New York Times noted in a review by Wyze Camera v2. So the feature essentially allows your loved ones to access the live feed from your room without compromising your login details. Seems about right. Now I’m not saying all of these features can translate to privacy nightmares. In fact, remote treat dispensers, smart notifications, and activity logs are sure-fire incentives for owners to set up a pet monitor. But like any other surveillance equipment, pet monitors come with their own list of risks, which are often overlooked and lead to dangerous consequences.
To begin with, such equipment is intended to be placed inside our houses. “Think of the video and audio that this device would capture in a day, and think of the worst-case scenario if someone else got their hands on it,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at Electronic Frontier Foundation. In an interview with Mashable, the expert pointed out how problematic it becomes when you start to feel like you don’t have privacy in your own home and consecutively leave your living room to have certain conversations.
This concern is doubled when it comes to devices with two-way audio and video capabilities. According to Furbo, nicknamed the best pet monitor you can buy in 2021, its two-way surveillance cameras integrate a communication system that allows you “to call your furbaby, talk to him or offer him soothing words if necessary”. Well, that was exactly what the Georgia couple were aiming for with their purchase. Instead, the woman witnessed a live hack and froze in horror. Imagine an unfamiliar voice coming out of your pet monitor on a beautiful night.
“These devices have many frightening implications for survivors of domestic violence and stalking,” Guariglia explained. “If you break up with a loved one and they still have access to a microphone and a Dirty Roulette camera inside your house, be careful and change your information.” Yes, they could still hack your security cameras to spy on you. But it all comes down to the research process of buying a surveillance camera for your home rather than one for your pet. In the latter case, you are forced to look for features like remote treats and communication while paying less or no attention to encryption of the entire security system.
“I don’t think about [the camera], and I know maybe I should, but that’s not something that bothers me so much, ”said Afton Moss, part owner of the San Francisco dog training and care company. wild wolves and uses a Furbo to keep an eye on his dog. When Mashable asked if she had any privacy concerns with keeping the pet monitor in her bedroom, Moss spoke more about the comfort the camera gave her and the added security it meant for her dog. This describes a set of tradeoffs that exist with most technologies. Here, that translates into increased safety for your pet in return for the potential threat to your own privacy.
A breeding ground for threats
In the case of Ring– which incidentally belongs to Amazon – the company has a long history of hacks and privacy scares. In 2020, Ring was hit by a class action alleging his failure to take basic security measures. A series of hacks in which creeps gained access to Ring cameras followed. In one case, hackers even took the opportunity to shout racist insults at 8 years old. What makes this threat even more worrying is that it is not just external. The same year, Ring admitted that his employees had tried to watch video feeds from customers.
“If your images are unencrypted in a cloud controlled by a company, theoretically and in many cases practically– businesses were able to access these historic images and maybe could even open a live view, ”Guariglia told Mashable. Then there is the data collected by the manufacturers themselves. Even if employees can’t get their hands on the video feeds, the metadata is more than enough to create a breeding ground for threats.
“You wouldn’t normally be monitoring your pet with a camera if you were in the house,” Guariglia observed. “So just by knowing when you log in and when you check in, you could theoretically know when you’re home and when you’re not.” Isn’t it funny how we depend on our dogs to guard homes while we’re gone, but end up being targeted while guarding them?
In the end, it all comes down to reading and researching the Terms of Service, despite how difficult the process is. “One of the worst scenarios in my mind is you saying in front of your dog feeder and your camera, ‘Oh, we really have to book that flight to Chicago’, and suddenly you see targeted ads for a flight to Chicago, ”summarized Guariglia. With the pet accessories business that is expected to reach 46 billion dollars by 2026, let’s just hope we don’t get there at the expense of our own privacy. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to change your WiFi password and update your pet camera’s firmware every now and then.