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Privacy Perspectives | With smart doorbells this holiday, it's about balancing the naughty and nice Related reading: A plea to keep surveillance out of the holidays



'Cause I don’t want you here tonight
Holding on to my stuff so tight
What more can I do?
Oh, baby, all I want for Christmas is you … to stop stealing the packages from my front porch, dude. My god, what’s your problem? Why did I call you baby? More like I’m calling the cops.

The U.S. Postal Service estimates 800 million packages will be sent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day this year, roughly 20.5 million per day. As packages find their way to homes all over the country, recipients have had to worry about a new breed of Scrooge looking to snuff out holiday cheer: "the porch pirate."

As deliveries are laid near the front door with care, these lumps of coal make off with stolen goods.

What more can I do, you may ask? Well, Mariah fans, several news stories have popped up around the country, telling tales of surveillance cameras catching these sentient cartons of expired eggnog in the act of thievery. A fair number of these culprits have been identified by smart doorbell cameras, a piece of technology that has seen a spike in popularity this past year.

This leaves me in a state of conflict. The past two years, I have written blistering screeds against surveillance intruding into the holidays; however, the trend I mentioned above hits me a bit differently.

As you may have surmised from these labored holiday references, I really don’t like thieves! Stealing packages is just so scummy! When I see someone Grinching Christmas presents or taking it to the next level by destroying holiday decorations, my first instinct is that I hope they are caught.

Smart doorbells are primarily marketed as a deterrent to stop people from committing crimes, and it's an aspiring goal to shoot for. The problem with any type of surveillance apparatus is when it wanders away from its intended use. Take this case from Delaware. An Amazon driver was delivering packages when he saw some snacks and drinks were left out by the homeowner. He was pretty happy, as one would be, but what he didn't know was that his reaction was recorded by the resident's Ring doorbell. 

The video was shared online and has been viewed by 12 million people. The driver's name was made public, and everyone got the warm and fuzzies by such a heartwarming tale of holiday cheer. (If you ask me, it seems like someone really wanted a couple million pats on the back. Of course, who am I to really judge? My name is attached to this article, and I've posted my fair share of useless garbage on social media for attention. Maybe I'm the real Grinch?)

The driver said he was surprised about the viral video but did not seem too upset about how the story turned out. Of course, no two people react the same way to a given situation. The driver did not consent to the recording or to it making its way to Twitter. While one person may take it in stride, it's not hard to imagine someone feeling strongly about so much exposure with essentially no say in the matter. Intentions may be fine and all, but it's still an example of privacy as a dwindling commodity.

Speaking of intentions, any surveillance device always has the potential to be used for nefarious purposes. A hacker was able to compromise a Ring camera located in the bedroom of a young girl in Mississippi. To show that even malicious entities like to get into the holiday spirit, this person told the little girl that he was the one and only Santa Claus. I think we can safely say this is creepy on an almost radioactive level.

There are some gross people out there, some with the drive to compromise these devices and co-opt beloved Yuletide figures to perform some sociopath's actions. It's not just snooping on children. Hackers have taken control of smart doorbells to blare loud noises and shout racial epitaphs. They even record them for podcasts.

Smart doorbells are just like all other internet-of-things devices. There are trade-offs in need of consideration and attention. Yes, they can deter the physical threats, but if they are not properly protected, then other actors could perform their own set of bad acts. Even in the case of the Amazon driver, a good deed could still end up violating one's privacy.

Let's also consider the crime-fighting portion of this equation, as well. Police departments have partnered with smart doorbell manufacturers to monitor the "porch pirate" market. Once again, on its face it doesn't sound that terrible, but these agreements should be monitored themselves to ensure the surveillance apparatus isn't used to target the wrong people.

We just need to be very careful. No one should have their packages stolen, but a young girl shouldn't be traumatized from St. Nicholas piping vocals through a camera. (There also shouldn't be any Elves on Shelves, but that's already well-trodden ground.) These smart cameras can be used for both naughty and nice, but we should make an effort to truly clarify what the naughty actually entails.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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