Thursday, July 02, 2020

Let’s ring in the New Year with a review of the Ring Doorbell. As smart doorbells become increasingly popular, I have noticed the Ring appear on more and more front doors around the neighborhood. Ring, as a company, is a great comeback story. It was famously rejected for investment by Shark Tank investors before it was eventually purchased by Amazon in early 2018 for more than $1 billion.

So, what makes a doorbell smart? It chimes in your house just like your existing doorbell, but what makes it “smart” is that it will also ring on your mobile phone. The doorbell and your phone act as an intercom that allows you to speak to anyone at your door regardless of your location. Additionally, the doorbell contains a camera so that you can see who is at your door. The video is one-directional so you can see who’s there, but they cannot see you.

Smart doorbells are commonly pitched as security devices. Ring considers itself a security company that competes with companies such as ADT. Ring even uses the slogan “ring of security” to describe their ecosystem and product suite.

I have always been skeptical of this claim. While burglars are known to ring doorbells before breaking and entering, are they likely to ring a doorbell that they know will record their face? And with millions of these units sold, will burglars be fooled into thinking you are home when you answer a Ring chime from the beach on vacation?

I personally think the security is not from the doorbell itself, but rather the embedded camera and motion sensor. The Ring Doorbell will not only notify you when someone rings the doorbell but will also notify you when someone even approaches your door.

While this can certainly be a deterrent against burglars, having a single camera at the front of your house hardly addresses the security needs around your home. Burglars will often target other access points besides your doors. Ring does offer other security cameras and window sensors as part of its product suite. Perhaps putting these all together begin to form the basis of a home security system.

The most direct competition to Ring in the smart home space is Nest, which also offers doorbells and other security-related smart devices. Ring and Nest are now owned by Amazon and Google respectively. When building your smart home, one of the important questions you need to ask yourself is, which smart home ecosystem are you buying into––Amazon or Google? If you are an Amazon user and own one of the Echo devices that has a screen (i.e. the Echo Show), then when people press your Ring Doorbell you will be able to see and communicate with them on the Echo device. If, however, you are a Google Home user and want that same functionality, you are out of luck unless you have a Nest Doorbell and vice versa. This, of course, is not consumer friendly but is the unfortunate result of fierce competition between the big tech companies for your smart home.

If you are building or renovating a home, planning for a smart doorbell will be important. Your contractor, without direction, may install a wireless doorbell or even a sophisticated intercom system. However, if you want a smart doorbell that does not require you to replace batteries regularly, you will want to make sure you have the proper low voltage wiring that will allow you to install a smart doorbell. Placement of the wiring so the camera can get a proper viewing angle is also important and may be different from the most convenient placement of a standard doorbell. If your home does not have the required wiring, you will have to settle for a smart doorbell model that is battery operated and replace the batteries as necessary. As you will see, you give up more than convenience when using a battery-operated version of the doorbell, even if you hardwire it.

Ring has recently introduced the Neighborhood app that allows users (even non-doorbell owners) in a local neighborhood to post notices about suspicious activity or other safety issues. Looking at my area (Teaneck) I see a report of an unhealthy coyote, a resident complaining about illegal dumping, a lost cat, a suspicious man looking for the mall, among others. While these reports sound somewhat benign and this service can potentially become a hyper local social media platform, one can easily envision using shared knowledge to avert a real threat. In fact, Ring is now working with police departments nationwide to enable them to potentially view users’ footage (with user permission) to help solve local crimes. Privacy advocates argue that this puts too much power in the hands of law enforcement. While Ring does not currently offer facial recognition, its owner, Amazon, does have this capability and this combination takes us a big step closer to the potential of a surveillance state. On the other hand, it is also hard to deny the potential this feature has in helping to get violent criminals off our streets.

We will continue with Part Two of this review next time and discuss differences in the various models of Ring doorbell, as well as the motion sensing features and their implications for Shabbat. Until then, wishing everyone a shana tova!

Dov Pavel is a tech enthusiast who reviews and installs home automation through the lens of a shomer Shabbat consumer. Pavel is not a halachic authority and readers should consult their own rabbi as needed. He can be reached at (609) 493-7468 or [email protected]