A judge at Oxford County Court in the UK has ruled that the Amazon (AMZN) Ring doorbell's ability to record sound more than 40 feet away is in violation of the UK Data Protection Act this week, after a dispute between neighbours.
But it appears users can continue to use their devices.
Ring is a smart security device company best known for its video doorbell, which allows users to see, talk to and record people who come to their doorsteps. The company was acquired by Amazon for $1bn in 2018.
Concerns that Ring's products encroach on privacy have arisen before – a Vox article said there were worries it “turns neighbourhoods into surveillance operations and profits from the false perception that crime is on the rise."
The case in the UK involves Mary Fairhurst, who took her neighbour Jon Woodard to court after alleging that his many CCTV cameras, including an Amazon Ring doorbell camera, counted as harassment and a breach of the Data Protection Act 2018.
Woodard had installed a camera on a neighbour's wall after claiming a criminal gang tried to steal his car. The camera was pointed towards a communal car park and its access road.
The ruling was in favour of Fairhurst because the camera could record audio from and pick up conversations more than 40 feet away.
"The extent of range to which these devices can capture audio is well beyond the range of video that they capture, and in my view cannot be said to be reasonable for the purpose for which the devices are used by the Defendant, since the legitimate aim for which they are said to be used, namely crime prevention, could surely be achieved by something less,” said Her Honour Judge Melissa Clarke.
What did Ring say?
Ring has said this ruling does not affect customers' ability to install and use their devices if they comply with applicable laws when setting up and using the device.
A spokesperson said: “We strongly encourage our customers to respect their neighbours' privacy and comply with any applicable laws when using their Ring product.”
It said there are features in all its devices to ensure that privacy, security, and user control remain front and centre.
This includes customisable privacy zones to block out "off-limit" areas; Motion Zones to control the areas customers want their Ring device to detect motion; and Audio Toggle to turn audio on and off.
It said its devices are not intended for capturing someone else’s property or public areas and that its products come with a sticker which is meant to be put up somewhere close to the device. Its purpose is to alert those nearby to the camera.
How does this impact consumers?
Whilst Amazon Ring doorbell owners won't have to get rid of their devices, if a case does end up in a high court or a a court of appeals, then a more serious legal precedent could be set.
“While this ruling is not precedent-setting, it has greater implications for the use of devices like this in the UK, as well as the presence of surveillance technology overall," James Ulwick, an attorney at DiCello Levitt Gutzler told Yahoo Finance UK.
"The fact that Amazon shipped these devices with no way to limit, or disable, audio recording was a failure to respect the rights of citizens to enjoy the seclusion and privacy of their own homes, and to be free from incidental or purposeful recording of their private conversations."
He said that while it appears that Amazon has updated its products to provide better controls, it is important that users pay close to them, so that they can balance the surveillance of their own property with the rights of their neighbours.
He added that if the case is appealed, it may give the UK Court of Appeal the opportunity to set precedent regarding the private use of surveillance technologies in the UK.
"In a nation that is one of the most, if not the most, surveilled on Earth, ensuring that every citizen continues to have the right to privacy in their own homes is of paramount importance.”
Meanwhile Naj Ahmed, a privacy analyst at VPNOverview, said: "The ruling does not set a legally binding precedent. However, it's likely that this case will be cited in rulings related to CCTV disputes."