Danger at your door: How safe are video doorbells?

Published: May. 9, 2019 at 10:53 PM CDT
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CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - When police Lieutenant Rick Schmidt is patrolling the streets of Cape Girardeau, he wants to know his family is safe at home. That's why he put in place several layers of security at his house, including the Ring Doorbell.

“It makes them feel safe,” said Lt. Schmidt. “I mean it gives them the opportunity to see and talk to the person before they even come in.”

While Lt. Schmidt said he has never had any suspicious people show up at his door, he’s seen proof that doorbell cameras can help catch criminals in the act.

Dr. Anand uses the Nest Doorbell at home, and says Nest & Ring devices are safe as long as your...
Dr. Anand uses the Nest Doorbell at home, and says Nest & Ring devices are safe as long as your Wi-Fi is password protected and up-to-date. (Source: KFVS)

"The porch pirates as well call them," said Schmidt. "We get video either from closed circuit TV or Ring Doorbells or other video doorbells every year having pictures of people stealing the packages."

Lt. Schmidt said the doorbells have definitely helped his department identify criminals in the past. But do these Wi-Fi connected devices potentially open the door to more sophisticated criminals looking to steal more than what’s on your porch?

Vijay Anand, Ph.D., an associate professor of computer science at Southeast Missouri State University said the answer to that question is yes, if your Wi-Fi is misconfigured.

Dr. Anand heads SEMO's Cybersecurity team. His students have dominated Missouri's statewide collegiate cyber defense competition for seven years in a row.

According to Dr. Anand, no matter how careful you think you're being by setting a strong password on all of your devices, it won't mean a thing if your Wi-Fi is weak.

"That's the weakest link," Dr. Anand said.

If your Wi-Fi router is old, or worse - not password protected - Dr. Anand said you are potentially inviting hackers right into your home.

“Depending on what devices are connected to that Wi-Fi, if you have stored personal information on your Wi-Fi and home laptop all your devices can be potentially attacked,” said Dr. Anand. “If other Wi-Fi-based cameras are in your house they can look at what you’re doing. That’s a very common attack.”

Once a hacker is in, Dr. Anand said they can potentially steal your identity, hold important documents or photos hostage, or even try to blackmail you with incriminating videos taken straight off your security cameras.

"And if they access your laptop, they can turn on the camera on that fairly quickly," said Dr. Anand.

Dr. Anand has a Nest Doorbell at his home. He said he generally trusts the device itself but took steps on his home Wi-Fi to protect his privacy. Dr. Anand said until there is a regulatory agency that holds tech companies accountable, the way the FCC regulates TV and radio, or OSHA regulates employers, consumers will have to take tech companies’ word that their products are secure.

Here are three things he suggested everyone do to keep their Wi-Fi safe from hackers:

  1. Upgrade your router and make sure it is running on current firmware
  2. Put in place a strong password to access your Wi-Fi
  3. Check your Wi-Fi router and make sure you recognize all the devices are connected

“We get comfortable with technology,” said Dr. Anand. “And we don’t want to change, but sometimes change is better. We have to move away from older Wi-Fi systems. That’s probably the single most important thing, move over from old Wi-Fi to new standards and have a decent enough password, that’s going to protect against the majority of attacks.”

Lt. Schmidt said for his family, the benefits of feeling safe at home outweigh the risk of potential hacks.

“If they’re sophisticated enough to steal my Wi-Fi to the house which I have password secured, I mean, there’s nothing to see other than a picture of my front door and me going in and out of it,” said Lt. Schmidt.

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