The spies of life

Police have asked Dropcam for video from people’s home cameras

Credit: Dropcam

“Like any responsible father, Hugh Morrison had installed cameras in every room in the flat,” is the opening line of Intrusion, a 2012 novel set in the near future. Originally installed so that Hugh and his wife can keep an eye on their kids, the Internet-connected cameras wind up being used later in the novel by police who tap into the feeds to monitor the couple chatting on their couch when they are suspected of anti-societal behavior. As with so many sci-fi scenarios, the novel’s vision was prophetic. People are increasingly putting small Internet-connected cameras into their homes. And law enforcement officials are using the cameras to collect evidence about them.

Dropcam, which makes popular $199 cameras that capture audio and video for live streams to smartphones or for storage in the cloud, tells Fusion that it has received a “limited number of law enforcement requests”—search warrants—for video from its customers’ cameras. The six-year-old company, which was purchased by Google-owned Nest Labs last year for more than $500 million, says it has only received these requests “in individual cases” and has not received “any broad-based government requests.” In other words, when law enforcement has come to Dropcam, it has been for eyes into a single home at a time, not a whole neighborhood.

“When we’ve received search warrants for Dropcam footage, we’ve provided notice to the email address associated with the account, unless compelled by a court not to do so,” said Thai. She says the requests so far have only been for stored footage not for access to a live video stream.

Google has an annual “transparency report” in which it reveals how many government requests it has gotten for access to people’s email and digital information. It’s unclear whether Dropcam (or Nest) will be added to this report. “We’re in the process of developing an appropriate way to report these numbers,” said Ha Thai, a Nest spokesperson, by email. Thai said Nest would not give information to the government about its Dropcam customers unless forced. “The government needs legal process—such as a subpoena, court order or search warrant—to force Nest to disclose user information,” said Thai.

So for those putting cameras in your home, just remember: the cameras might be useful for catching a thief who breaks in, but you could also wind up putting on a show for the feds yourself.

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