How To (Responsibly) Spy On Your Pets
So you’re thinking of buying a dog camera, cat camera or other pet cam for a loved one this holiday season. Sure, doggie cameras aren’t known for being exploited by law enforcement, or being owned by a historically invasive tech giant, or intimately tracking your emotional state. But cameras that let you watch and talk to your pet are still surveillance devices at their core, and there are some privacy considerations to keep in mind when gifting someone a connected camera to watch pets.
Look at the pet camera’s app permissions
When considering a new camera to watch your dog or cat, look at the app that comes with it. See what permissions the app asks for and consider whether those permissions are essential to carry out the functions of the device. With many pet cam devices, the app will likely ask for microphone and video permissions, since it’ll listen to and look at your pet as well as feed you that audio and video while you’re away. Keep an eye out for permissions that seem unnecessary.
“There might be some weird ones like, does it need location to work? Does it need access to your address book?” Gennie Gebhart, acting activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said. “Those are things that an average consumer can look at and use some common sense. Does it need access to this part of my phone to monitor my pets while I’m gone?”
While you’re in the app store looking at what permissions a dog or cat camera will ask for, it’s usually just one more click to find other information like who the parent company is. If you’ve heard of that company, do you trust them? It takes a bit of investigative work, but if you’re gifting a pet cam to someone who trusts you, or someone who feels obligated to download the pet camera’s app, it’s this due diligence that really makes it a thoughtful present.
Find out where the pet cam footage goes
After looking into a cat or dog camera’s permissions, read a bit about the camera company and find out what it does with your footage. “On one end of the spectrum we have Ring, the purest distillation of evil,” Gebhart said. “And it’s easy to say like, hey, this is not Ring, I’m not monitoring my neighbors, I’m not being a neighborhood busybody, I just want to make sure my pets are safe.”
Just because the object of a pet nanny cam’s eye isn’t a human, doesn’t make it any less invasive. The device is still taking video of your home, your personal space, and it’s easy to forget that it’s on and recording. You want to find out where that pet camera footage is going. Gebhart said it’s safe to assume that most of the video from these devices is going to the cloud. “The cloud is just someone else’s computer,” she said “so figure out whose computer that is.”
You can look at whether the company that makes the device is owned by a larger corporation you might’ve heard of, and then take a look at the parent company’s policies. Find out whether they plan on retaining video footage of your home for a long time. You’ll also want to look at their law enforcement access policy. This policy will reveal whether the cops are capable of serving the company with a warrant and gaining access to video of your home.
Look at the company’s ad copy with a critical eye
You can learn a lot from a pet camera’s ads. Even though doggy cams are in the less-proven-evil product category, that doesn’t undermine the fact that it is a surveillance device. Gebhart pointed out that oftentimes, companies might tell you exactly what the device does as a selling point. Using a critical eye will help you differentiate what might seem cute and cool at face value but is actually an invasion of privacy. Figure out if the stated proposition designed to entice consumers is a feature that you might like, or if it’s something you’d want to avoid.
According to Gebhart, “They might say, ‘we keep track of this so you don’t have to and we keep it forever! Isn’t that so handy and convenient?’ Well, maybe not for you if you’re concerned about retention or if you’re concerned about where video of your home is going.”
Talk to your friends/family/loved ones about privacy
Privacy isn’t a solitary experience, it’s inherently social. We’re sending messages, sharing files, gifting connected devices to friends, and maybe even buying one for someone we share a space with. Gebhart characterized privacy as a team sport. Simply locking down all of our information and making sure all of our own data is secure is not a surefire way to evade the invasive. (That was made abundantly clear with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.)
Talk to your loved ones about what they are comfortable with and aware of when it comes to privacy. Ask them if they feel unsettled by a company collecting video of their home to their cloud, and if they are further unsettled by the fact that this footage is potentially vulnerable to a law enforcement request.
“Make sure that you’re giving someone something that they do want, and they have thought about the risks and how they’ll integrate it into their life, and what they want this device to do for them,” Gebhart said.
Privacy considerations don’t stop at purchase
You can do all the due diligence, but that doesn’t mean things won’t change down the road. You want to also think about a pet camera’s longevity, and avoid being complacent when you have a camera in your home.
“It’s always important to remember with any internet-connected device, that the company can choose to shut it down at any time and it can become a useless piece of plastic,” Gebhart said.
A company going under isn’t the only issue that might pop up down the line. The company might also fail to send future updates, giving you an unsecure, unpatched device on your network. They could also send you a malicious update. Or perhaps the parent company—one that you trusted—is acquired by another company that’s way more shady. Anything can happen in the future.
It’s important to note that you can love privacy and also love the idea of having a pet camera that gives treats to your pets while you’re away, or lets you check in on them, whether you’re in a different zip code or a different room. They can coexist! At the end of the day, products designed with privacy-invasive qualities (whether a bug or a feature) are not your fault.
“It’s really easy to slide down this road of blaming consumers,” Gebhart said, and that we shouldn’t put the onus on users to know exactly what settings to have on and what to have looked into ahead of purchase. We should ask more from these companies while doing our own research. “I say, they shouldn’t have made privacy invasive crap and pushed it on you in the first place. So yes, you can 100% still be a privacy advocate while gifting your friends delightful things to watch their cats and dogs.”
You can check out Mozilla’s list of pet devices reviewed by Mozilla and whether or not they were deemed creepy.