Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law.
Evan Greer is an activist, musician, and writer based in Boston. She is the deputy director of the viral digital rights group Fight for the Future, and writes regularly for the Washington Post, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, and Wired.
The walls may not yet have ears, but nearly everything else in the typical American household does. With digital assistants and a growing list of increasingly invasive “internet of things” devices, we’re constantly being monitored by the likes of Siri, Alexa, Ring, and Google. These constant companions have not only become more prevalent, they’re also becoming more powerful.
Amazon’s newest home spy tool, Ring Always Home Cam, is an indoor camera-enabled drone. The flying robot independently dislodges from its base to investigate noises or periodically patrol your house when it senses no one is home. While a static camera can be controlled, this Ring-enabled drone will use Amazon's home surveillance platform to record everyone and everything it sees.
We often think of a Big Brother mass-surveillance state being imposed by governments, when in reality we are building it ourselves with the devices we willingly purchase. What many people don't realize is that these invasive products are already illegal in the US—it's just that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hasn't been enforcing its own rules.
Under an FCC rule from 1989, people are barred from using devices capable of “overhearing or recording the private conversations of others unless such use is authorized by all of the parties engaging in the conversation.” In short: you can’t install your own wiretap.
The rule was part of a broader set of reforms created to regulate the use of unlicensed wireless spectrum. This is the part of the airwaves that is reserved for low-powered consumer purposes, walled off from the TV, radio, and other licensed parts of the spectrum to prevent potential interference. In the late 1980s, the FCC realized they needed to create rules for the growing array of consumer devices that used wireless spectrum, but they couldn’t have possibly imagined how we’d be using that spectrum 31 years later. Instead of using that slice of the airwaves for walkie talkies and RC cars, we’ve built a gargantuan collection of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-enabled devices that are constantly watching and listening to us—and sometimes providing data to the police.
The law may be old, but it’s clear: you can’t use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to operate a home wiretap. Of course, this is exactly what devices like Ring do. And as home surveillance devices become even more widespread, even more people are being tracked without their consent.
It’s not just Wi-Fi-enabled surveillance cameras, but the growing array of personal assistant devices like Alexa that violate this law as well.
The harmful impacts of these devices are numerous. Abusers and stalkers already use them to monitor the whereabouts of their spouses and children. Hackers have broken into home surveillance cameras like Ring to harass kids and threaten families. The devices leak customers’ WiFi usernames and passwords, leaving them vulnerable to cybercrimes. Marginalized people are also disproportionately surveilled by these products, enabling a culture of paranoia and racial profiling that further subjects Black, Indigenous and people of color to mass criminalization and incarceration.
It’s time the FCC do something about these illegal devices. And if the FCC is going to start anywhere, it should start with Amazon, the tech giant that has sought to corner the market on Wi-Fi enabled home surveillance through it’s Ring subsidiary. Ring’s entire purpose is to record, track, and analyze anyone the camera comes in contact with. Any unsuspecting neighbor, visitor, or delivery person who has a conversation within earshot of a Ring camera is a target.
These tools are invasive and dangerous. They collect huge volumes of information––everything from car license plates to peoples’ faces—and expose our most intimate moments to potential hacks. These recordings are easily accessed by police departments, despite there being hardly any evidence that they help prevent crime.
According to a 2019 survey, 63% of people find smart home devices creepy and 75% don’t trust them. But consumers also don’t feel like they have a way to avoid this invasive tech. After all, buying a new refrigerator or TV, it increasingly means being subjected to the corporate surveillance tech that's built right in.
Under its current chairman, Ajit Pai, the Republican-led FCC has stood by while these devices proliferate and track our every move, despite having the authority to stop it. With the upcoming election, a potential change in administration could mean a new FCC chair that actually cares about our privacy. If that happens, getting the FCC to enforce this rule should be a top priority for privacy advocates and regular consumers.