by Dale Chappell
Touted as a convenient way to monitor who’s at your front door, internet-enabled doorbell cameras send alerts to users’ cellphones where they can view the camera footage in real-time from a remote location. It’s a great way to record and report suspected activity, the device makers say.
But, in an interesting twist, these doorbell cameras have been alerting homeowners of unannounced law enforcement raids and searches at their residences, something that’s worrying law enforcement agencies, like the FBI.
In a document leaked as part of the BlueLeaks treasure trove hacked from websites linked to hubs of information servers for law enforcement entities, a November 2019 bulletin from the FBI identified “opportunities and challenges” with doorbell cameras, The Intercept reports. The opportunities the internal bulletin mentioned were described as the devices having “valuable data regarding device owners’ movements in real-time and on a historic basis, which can be used to, among other things, confirm or contradict subject alibis or statements.”
In other words, doorbell camera video can be subpoenaed by law enforcement to incriminate a homeowner, or even a neighbor visible to the camera, to prove or disprove his story.
The “challenges” noted in the bulletin refer to homeowners using the doorbell cameras to be alerted when law enforcement shows up uninvited to serve a search warrant or conduct a raid. “Subjects likely use IoT [“internet of things”] devices to hinder LE [law enforcement] investigations and possibly monitor LE activity,” the bulletin says. “If used during the execution of a search, potential subjects could learn of LE’s presence nearby, and LE personnel could have their images captured, thereby presenting a risk to their present and future safety” (by revealing undercover narcotics agents, for example).
Such an incident occurred in New Orleans in 2017, the bulletin said. “Through the Wi-Fi doorbell system, the subject of the warrant remotely viewed the activity at his residence from another location and contacted his neighbor and landlord regarding the FBI’s presence there,” it said. The bulletin warned that the homeowner was able to “covertly monitor law enforcement activity” at his house.
Public anonymity, over-policing, and Fourth Amendment rights have been brought into the spotlight with internet-connected surveillance devices, such as doorbell cameras. And now in an interesting twist, law enforcement finds itself the ones being covertly surveilled by the very tools they intended to use against homeowners.
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