The Ring Doorbell and the Legal Implications of Distributed Surveillance

Presenter: Bruce Boyden, Marquette University Law School

Amazon’s Ring doorbell has attracted a lot of attention, not only from consumers but also from civil liberties groups and privacy advocates. An advertised feature of the doorbell is that video captured by it can be easily shared with the police. This claim makes explicit what is already implicit—that electronic monitoring of outdoor and public spaces has gone viral. This has raised concerns about invasions of the privacy of ordinary visitors, and raised the spectre that homeowners’ discriminatory impulses might exacerbate problems of racial profiling by the police.

Regardless of the success or failure of the Ring device, private video surveillance of open spaces is likely to become an even more pressing issue in the years ahead. This session will consider some of the legal ramifications of such devices. What privacy rights of persons caught on doorbell cameras, or similar recording devices, might be implicated? Constitutional provisions and federal statutes such as the Fourth Amendment and the federal Wiretap Act impose few constraints on private recording in open spaces, even if such recordings are later turned over to the police. State laws regulating video recording typically require a reasonable expectation of privacy. But if the individuals whose images are captured are personally identifiable, other privacy laws may become applicable, such as the new California Consumer Privacy Act.

What obligations do the makers of such recording devices have to prevent their misuse? The Federal Trade Commission has brought enforcement actions against device makers that have failed to implement reasonable security measures. Although the FTC’s enforcement capability is limited, states have increasingly taken the lead, both under state unfair trade practices law, and statutes such as California’s new Security of Connected Devices law. Device makers could also be subject to negligence liability, at least to the extent such suits are permitted under their end-user license agreements. Together, these laws require device makers to take reasonable measures to secure devices against malicious intrusion, but it is still too soon to tell whether these laws will be effective.

Credit: Approved for 1.0 CLE credits
60 minutes
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