Video Doorbell Cameras Record Audio, Too

They can pick up conversations from 20 to 25 feet away

A front door with a Ring doorbell and blue rings coming out of it. Photo Illustration: Lacey Browne/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

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.

More on Video Doorbells

“I was surprised by how clear the audio was at a distance. I wasn’t expecting that because my personal experience with doorbell audio has always involved talking to people who are actually at the door,” Wroclawski says. “If there is a way to adjust the mic sensitivity so audio is not captured at such a distance, these companies should probably do that.”

Nearly 2 in 10 Americans (18 percent) have video doorbells, according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey (PDF) of 2,223 U.S. adults conducted in January 2021. That means for many people, phone calls and interactions with family, friends, and others in their own driveways or on the steps of their homes aren’t really private.

“It captures audio much further than I expected,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. He points out that a doorbell cam at the end of an echoey hallway could be collecting very clear audio of people’s conversations, even if they don’t see it. That could happen in apartment buildings where a landlord has installed these cameras, which could record people visiting their lobby mailbox or walking down a hallway, he says.

And someone with a screen door who keeps their front door open all day could not only record audio from the street but also capture audio from inside their home. “Suddenly you’re having conversations with your family inside your house, and they are recorded on a server somewhere,” Guariglia says.

For some people, the prospect of the neighbors recording conversations may seem like a minor annoyance. However, people who worry about the creeping expansion of surveillance technology say that the microphones are problematic.

 “If you and another person are walking alone on the street at night a good distance in front of a house, I think there is some expectation of privacy,” Guariglia says. “And if a small box that is barely visible from the street can capture your audio at conversational tones, that really changes the paradigm of privacy.”

In addition to your neighbors accessing your conversations, if any of the recordings are shared with other users, for instance through Ring’s Neighbors app, or with the police—even if an investigation has nothing to do with you—a lot of strangers could end up listening to details of your weekend plans or an argument with your spouse.

Chris Gilliard, a visiting research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center agrees. “Some degree of obscurity in public space is a really important thing for society to have, and I think things like this erode it.” 

He also points out that people discussing their relationship status, health concerns, or other sensitive topics when they don’t think they’re being recorded could face potential harms that outweigh the claimed benefits. “It’s not hard to imagine ways in which people who don’t think they are being recorded might exhibit entirely legal and appropriate behavior, or reveal information they don’t desire to be made public,” he says. 

And he points out that any type of surveillance disproportionately impacts communities and individuals who are targeted by law enforcement most often, including people of color. “That’s a truism of surveillance: It’s going to fall earliest and most often on the marginalized.”

Individuals have few legal protections against this kind of surveillance. A law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act bars people from intercepting other people’s conversations, but it was written in 1986 and is difficult to apply to modern communications technology, according to Rebecca Green, professor of the practice of law at William & Mary Law School. In addition, she says, it doesn’t cover video recordings.

Ring does get a significant number of government requests for users’ data, including warrants, court orders, and other information requests. The company summarizes them in a report it releases every six months. In the report, the company says it notifies users before disclosing information “unless it is prohibited from doing so or has clear indication of illegal conduct in connection with the use of Ring products or services.” In its most recent report, covering the second half of 2021, Ring says it processed 1,807 information requests, which included 765 requests for the content of data files stored in a user’s account such as videos recordings. The company only notified users of 376 information requests.

Arlo also publishes a transparency report (PDF) which lays out the types of information requests it receives and whether it has provided all, some, or none of the information requested. The report does not include information on how often users are informed of these requests. Arlo says it only responds to requests for account data with a court order, and that it does not notify users when they are the subject of a search warrant.

“I think the assumption has been for a long time that the market could fix all of this,” Green says. “If these products are not aligning with public sentiment, then somehow the markets will adjust. For example, companies that are horrible about protecting people’s privacy won’t do well. But I think profit-driven companies are totally disrupting normal assumptions.”

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.