HomeTop StoriesThe police are embracing them, but are they reducing crime?

The police are embracing them, but are they reducing crime?

It was a man who tried to break into her home that turned Jessica Randle into a leading advocate for video doorbells.

Mrs. Randle was taking a nap in her living room in Phoenix, Arizona, when she heard a soft outside noise that she ignored.

Later, when she viewed the automatic video doorbell recording on her phone, she discovered that a burglar had tried to open her front door. He then walked away, most likely after seeing the camera.

“I wasn’t aware of it at all, just completely oblivious,” she says.

The incident inspired Mrs. Randle and her husband to start Doorbell News, a YouTube channel that curates interesting security footage captured by video doorbells in the US. Launched in 2017, the videos have now reached 397 million views.

Ms. Randle is convinced that video doorbells, also known as smart doorbells, are making a big difference in home security. “I feel like I can, you know, sleep safely in my house,” she says. “And I can run away from my house without getting paranoid.”

The doorbells register every movement outside, allowing the user to watch the videos on his or her mobile phone

There is no doubt about the ever-growing popularity of doorbells. According to an estimate, some 11.7 million were sold worldwide in 2021, 63% more than in 2020.

The doorbells connect to a property’s Wi-Fi and then to an app on the user’s phone. So you can’t be at home and immediately receive a notification and video images from someone at your front door. You can also talk to the person.

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The video recording is then usually stored on a cloud computer for a month, if the user pays for a subscription.

But do video doorbells really improve your home security and help catch criminals?

“Like all cameras, we are using video call footage as evidence to solve the crime,” said a spokesperson for London’s Metropolitan Police.

He pointed to a case from May this year in which a man was convicted of manslaughter “after Met detectives put together the case against him via video doorbell footage”.

A doorbell recording was also used last year to help convict a man in Somerset who killed his two neighbours.

At Greater Manchester Police, officers are now often asking people to submit doorbell CCTV footage to help the investigation. The recordings are then used as evidence, or turned into stills to make public calls to help identify suspects or find potential witnesses.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the College of Policing, the professional body for the police in England and Wales, said the BBC doorbell video cameras are increasingly being used by all forces and are having a positive impact.

The best-selling video doorbell in the world is Amazon’s Ring. Dave Ward, general manager of the Ring division, says: “We’ve taken home security to the next level by really democratizing technology.”

By this he means that the doorbells do not have to be installed or monitored by a professional company.

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Google’s Nest is another popular video doorbell. Rose Yao, Nest’s vice president of product management, reiterates the view that safety is an important reason consumers buy the products.

This includes keeping tabs on so-called “porch pirates” – opportunistic thieves who target deliveries left on people’s doorsteps.

Google Nest doorbell

Police have had access to video doorbell recordings for a number of years

In the US, both Ring and Nest have provided footage to thousands of police forces across the country over a number of years.

This was not without controversy, however, as there have been a few occasions when Ring and Nest have provided footage to US police without first obtaining permission from the homeowner.

Ring counters that it only does so “in cases where there is imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to anyone.” Nest makes the same argument.

Another criticism of video doorbells is whether they invade the privacy of neighbours, whose comings and goings can be captured by the motion-detection cameras. In 2021, an Oxford judge ruled that using a Ring doorbell was against data protection law and that a neighbor of the owner had been harassed by using it.

In response, Ring urged users to monitor their camera’s adjustable “motion zone” so that areas outside their property were not included.

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As video doorbell images are increasingly used by police forces, do the products primarily work as a crime deterrent? The evidence appears to be mixed.

In 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department said that during a trial, crime rates in an area with homes with Ring video doorbells saw a 50% reduction compared to another neighborhood that didn’t have cameras. But since then other police forces say the doorbells make little difference.

Meanwhile, the British organization Center For Research And Evidence On Security Threats says video doorbells can actually make a home more vulnerable to burglaries. The argument is that the doorbells indicate to a burglar that the homeowner is wealthy and therefore likely to have things worth stealing.

Separately, Ring had to fix a weakness in its phone app last year after security researchers discovered that hackers could potentially gain access to video recordings.

Ring doorbells

Amazon’s Ring is the best seller in the industry

Stacey Higginbotham is the editor of the Internet of Things podcast and an expert on video doorbells.

“From a physical security standpoint, I really don’t know how much good these doorbells do for people,” she says. “You can now [for example], watch someone take your package. Often robbers realize they’re there now, so they either have a hat over their face or look away from the doors when they open them.”

Ms Higginbotham added that while she is pleased that police are using footage, she is concerned about its wider uptake. “It opens up this whole surveillance network where it hasn’t been before.

“And it’s not clear if we have the laws to protect civil liberties as they are widely used and enforced.”

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