Inside the secret life of pet cameras costing owners their privacy

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Nov 7, 2021 at 09:15 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

In December 2019, a Georgia-based couple purchased a Ring security camera to keep an eye on their puppy, Beau, while they went for work. Three weeks later, the video and two-way audio pet monitor blared out the voice of a man. “Wake up! I can see you in the bed,” the voice yelled at the woman followed by a string of profanities. At one point, the man even started talking to their pet. “Hello! Hello! Come here, puppy,” he said, with clapping noises in the background.

Terrified for their safety, the couple reported the incident to the local police and Ring. Upon reviewing their notification history, they also discovered that someone had hacked their account on four separate occasions—within three weeks of purchase. Welcome to the secret life of pet owners, a concerning privacy threat that is currently at the mercy of WiFi-enabled monitors loaded with treat-dispensers, laser-pointing games and two-way audios and videos.

A controversial necessity

Do you have a furry friend who lives rent-free in your apartment? Do they tear up your sofa, scratch at the door and sulk the entire time you’re away making a living for you both? Sure, you have enough physical evidence if they chew up your bathroom slippers and wet the rug, but how do you know and make sure that they’re happy and engaged in your absence? Cue pet monitors, a space-age invention guaranteed to appease your separation anxiety.

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A post shared by Furbo Dog Camera (@furbodogcamera)

From allowing you to communicate with your trusted companion to monitoring them around-the-clock, pet monitors come with a range of features in the market today. Its HD quality assures to capture every little detail of your home while its wide viewing angles make it easier to spot your pet in the most elusive corners of the room it is set up in. Don’t even get me started on the motion detectors, night vision and the two-way audio and video system. Some of these monitors also have a guest portal that offers secure video streaming of your pet’s antics for the rest of your family and friends to enjoy. Wait, what?

“If you share pet ownership with someone else or you want others to see how amazing your pet is, you can grant them guest access to your feed without having to share your account password,” The New York Times noted in a review of Wyze Cam v2. So the feature basically lets your loved ones access the livestream of your room without compromising your login credentials. Sounds about right. Now, I’m not saying all these features can translate into privacy nightmares. In fact, remote treat dispensers, smart notifications and activity logs are surefire incentives for owners to install a pet monitor. But just like any other surveillance equipment, pet monitors come with their own list of risks—which is often overlooked and aid some dangerous consequences.

For starters, such equipment is meant to be placed inside our homes. “Think about what video and audio that device would capture in a day, and think about what is the worst case scenario if somebody else got their hands on it,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In an interview with Mashable, the expert highlighted how this becomes problematic when you start feeling like you don’t have privacy in your own house and you’re consecutively leaving your living room to have certain conversations.

This concern is doubled when it comes to devices with two-way audio and video features. According to Furbo, dubbed as the top pet monitor one can purchase in 2021, its two-way monitoring cameras incorporate a communication system that lets you “call your furbaby, baby talk to him or her or offer soothing words as needed.” Well, this was exactly what the Georgia couple aimed for with their purchase. Instead, the woman witnessed a live hacking and froze up in horror. Imagine an unknown voice booming out of your pet monitor one fine night.

“These devices have a lot of scary implications for survivors of domestic violence and stalking,” explained Guariglia. “If you break up with a significant other and they retain access to a microphone and camera inside your house, be mindful and change your information.” Yes, they could always just hack into your security cameras to spy on you. But it all boils down to the research process of buying a surveillance camera for your house versus one for your pet. In the latter case, you are bound to look for features like remote treats and communication while paying less to no attention to the encryption of the entire security system.

“I don’t think about [the camera], and I know maybe I should, but it’s not something that bothers me that much,” said Afton Moss who co-owns the San Francisco dog training and care business Wild Wolves and uses a Furbo to keep tabs on her dog. When Mashable asked if she had any privacy concerns related to housing the pet monitor in her room, Moss spoke more about the reassurance the camera provided her and the added safety it meant for her dog. This outlines a set of tradeoffs that exist in the case of most technology. Here, this translates to added security of your pet in exchange for the potential threat of your own privacy.

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A post shared by Furbo Dog Camera (@furbodogcamera)

A breeding ground for threats

In the case of Ring—which is owned by Amazon by the way—the company has a long history of privacy hacks and scares. In 2020, Ring was hit with a class action lawsuit alleging its failure in taking basic security precautions. A series of hacks wherein creeps gained access to Ring cameras followed. In one case, hackers even used the opportunity to yell racial slurs at an 8 year-old. What makes this threat further concerning is that it’s not just external. In the same year, Ring admitted that its employees had tried to watch customers’ video feeds.

“If your footage is sitting unencrypted on a cloud controlled by a company, theoretically—and in many instances practically—the companies have been able to access that historic footage and could maybe even be able to open up a livestream view,” Guariglia told Mashable. Then there’s the data collected by the manufacturers themselves. Even if employees can’t seem to get their hands on video feeds, metadata is more than enough to foster a breeding ground for threats.

“When you set up the Furbo Dog Camera, we collect any audio, video or pictures you create, upload, save or share through our Services (the ‘Content’),” reads Furbo’s privacy policy. “We may also collect video and audit information of individuals when they pass in front of the camera or speak when the Furbo Dog Camera is on.” Mashable also noted how the company collects customers’ geolocation data and info about their social media profiles, among many other seemingly unnecessary details. In 2020, the Mozilla Foundation additionally found that Furbo could use customers’ videos to test AI algorithms.

“You wouldn’t normally check up on your pet through a camera if you were in the house,” observed Guariglia. “So, just by knowing when you’re logging in and when you’re checking in, one could theoretically figure out when you’re home and when you’re not.” Isn’t it funny how we depend on our dogs to guard homes while we’re away but end up being targeted while guarding them?

In the end, it all comes down to reading and researching the terms of service despite how painful the process can be. “One of the worst case scenarios in my mind is you saying in front of your dog feeder and camera, ‘Oh we really have to book that flight to Chicago,’ and suddenly you’re seeing targeted ads for a flight to Chicago,” Guariglia summed up. With the pet accessory business predicted to reach $46 billion by 2026, let’s just hope we don’t get there at the expense of our own privacy. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to change up your WiFi password and update your pet camera’s firmware every once in a while.

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