Video Doorbell Cameras Record Audio, Too
They can pick up conversations from 20 to 25 feet away
Millions of video doorbells have been installed in U.S. homes, letting people chat with visitors without going to the door, and keep an eye on package deliveries—along with random wildlife and their own neighbors passing by. Ring doorbells and similar devices are so ubiquitous that you might expect to be recorded on other people’s video feeds every time you walk or drive down the street.
What you might not be aware of is that video doorbells can record audio, too.
Whether you’re standing on your stoop and arguing with your housemate about whose turn it is to take out the trash or passing by a neighbor’s house discussing your personal life, your conversation may get picked up by either your own doorbell or someone else’s. And if you do own a video doorbell, you may be inadvertently recording audio from unsuspecting neighbors as well.
Some of these recordings can be useful. For example, they allow friends and neighbors to leave messages—on purpose—when the video doorbell owner isn’t home. But critics warn that these doorbells erode our privacy, too. And, once you’re aware that you’re being recorded, they can chip away at the expectation that we can go out into our neighborhoods and speak freely.
But how likely are you to really be recorded on these devices? To find out, we measured just how close you need to be to a video doorbell for it to capture your conversations.
Testing: What Audio Is Recorded by Video Doorbells
We started by testing the Ring Video Doorbell 3 Plus in one of our labs and found that we could understand speech recorded at a conversational volume from up to 18 feet away, which was the farthest we tested in our lab.
After testing, CR conducted some evaluations in real-world situations. Our smart-home reporter, Daniel Wroclawski, temporarily mounted an Arlo Ultra camera and a Ring Video Doorbell 3 Plus on his own house in suburban New Jersey. Then he played a YouTube video of test audio on a laptop at 5-foot intervals from the devices on the sidewalk in front of his house.
A lot depended on the wind, but in still conditions, we could make out conversations the Arlo camera picked up from as far as 30 feet away. The Ring doorbell was a bit less sensitive, making clear recordings from up to 20 feet away when the wind was calm. Even when it was windy, both video doorbells produced clear audio from up to 10 feet away. (The Arlo camera has a setting that’s supposed to reduce noise from wind, but we didn’t test that feature.)
In short, video doorbells do record conversations from many steps away.
Audio Capture Distance and Privacy Concerns
Twenty or 30 feet might not seem like a lot, but the doorbells picked up audio from the sidewalk directly in front of Wroclawski’s house. And that distance would cover a good stretch of sidewalk in front of a lot of suburban houses, condos, and townhouses. If you live in an apartment building where some units have doorbell cameras, your conversations might be clearly recorded anytime you step out your door. Your neighbors could easily call up some of the audio on their phones and listen in. If they then decide to post the recordings online, lots of other people could, too.
What You Can Do
Most video doorbells don’t record audio continually. If you leave the Ring on the default setting, it starts recording audio and video simultaneously whenever its built-in motion detector is activated, and then continues for up to 2 minutes or until motion is no longer detected. The Arlo works similarly, but in addition to recording when it detects motion, it can also be activated by a loud noise.
How can you know if a video doorbell is recording? The Arlo Ultra camera has a very faint indicator light that lights up when the device records video and audio. The Ring Video Doorbell 3 Plus doesn’t have an indicator light as a feature, but you can see its red infrared lights (used for night vision) when it starts recording.
Guariglia recommends reducing how much of the street or how much of your neighbors’ house is captured by video by angling your camera so it’s only seeing your house and your property. You can set the motion sensor to detect movement at different distances, and also change the duration of the recording. (If you have a Ring doorbell cam, you can also use the “privacy zones” setting to exclude areas from the camera’s view.)
Guariglia says he recommends opting out of audio recording every time your camera is motion activated, which both the Ring and Arlo cameras allow you to do.
Before You Buy a Video Doorbell Camera
If you want a doorbell camera but also want to be courteous to your neighbors and mindful of their privacy, Guariglia recommends getting one where the footage is stored locally (on your own devices rather than in the cloud) as well as opting into end-to-end encryption, which means that the company that makes the device can’t view your recordings.
Let’s take local storage first.
By default, Ring doorbells store recordings on the company’s servers. However, you can switch to local storage by getting the company’s Ring Alarm Pro system. Once you have that, you can store the videos on a microSD card plugged into the base station—if you sign up for a $20-a-month subscription plan.
Arlo does not allow users to store recordings locally instead of in the cloud, and it does not offer end-to-end encryption. The company says it has a strict process in place for when it uses the decryption keys it holds to provide data in response to legal requests.
Don’t like the idea of paying for an expensive subscription just to store data locally? The Netatmo Smart Video Doorbell and the Eufy models both offer local storage without monthly fees. When the video is stored locally, your phone just streams the recordings from the doorbell over your Wi-Fi network instead of streaming from the company’s server.
End-to-end encryption also adds to the privacy and security of your recording. It prevents anyone else from seeing your recordings, no matter where they are stored.
Doorbells that offer end-to-end encryption include Logitech Circle View Doorbell 961-000484, and WeMo WDC010, which use the end-to-end encrypted Apple HomeKit Secure Video for storage, but store it in the cloud. Consumers do not lose any features when enabling end-to-end encryption for these two video doorbells, as they do when enabling end-to-end encryption for Ring.
End-to-end encryption is an option for Ring video doorbells, too, but it is off by default. The company says that if you turn it on, some features of the doorbell will no longer work, such as the ability to watch videos on third-party devices.
However, having end-to-end encryption turned off means that the company can access the recordings, though a company spokesperson says there are strict codes of conduct in place for Ring employees and third-party contractors. Ring says its research and development team reviews a small number of video recordings to improve its products and services; these are either videos made publicly available on the Neighbors app or elsewhere on the internet, or shared with explicit permission for this purpose. Arlo also uses user-donated footage for research and development with the user’s explicit consent.
Having the encryption feature off also means that if police are interested in what is happening in or around your house, they can send a warrant straight to Amazon to pull your video and audio off their servers. Using end-to-end encryption or storing your data locally is a good way to ensure that the police will have to send these requests to you directly.
Update: This article has been updated with comments from Arlo. It was originally published on April 15, 2022.