Wirecutter No Longer Recommends Ring Doorbells, and It’s About Time

The review site pulled its endorsement over a security risk. But there are even better reasons to shun this trendy surveillance gadget.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

OOne of the best Cyber Monday deals in all of cyberdom this year, according to the influential review site Wirecutter, was the Ring Video Doorbell 2, which Amazon bundled with its Echo Show 5 smart display for $140. Three days earlier, another version of the gadget, the Ring Video Doorbell Pro, made Wirecutter’s list of “The Best Black Friday Deals You Can Get Right Now.”

Ring doorbells, made by a startup that Amazon acquired in 2018, have cameras that capture footage and alert you each time they detect someone moving in front of your house. You can stream the footage on your phone, record it for later viewing, and share it with your neighbors via Ring’s Neighbors app, a sort of virtual neighborhood watch aimed at porch pirates, burglars, and anyone else who might arouse suspicion.

For devotees of the site, which is owned by the New York Times, there could be no more persuasive endorsement. No doubt many people bought Ring doorbells as a result, whether for themselves or as gifts. They did so despite, or perhaps without knowledge of, a rising drumbeat of critical reporting on Ring, highlighting its shadowy connections to law enforcement, its corrosive effects on privacy, and its potential as a tool of racial profiling.

On Thursday, Wirecutter announced that it was pulling its recommendations of Ring doorbells. The move came after a series of reports of major security flaws in Ring’s systems, which allowed hackers to take over users’ cameras, left users’ Wi-Fi networks vulnerable, and exposed users’ personal data. A recent analysis by Motherboard’s Joseph Cox concluded that Ring’s security protections are “awful.” Yet Ring’s response laid much of the blame on its users, noting that the hacks were facilitated by people reusing old passwords.

To be clear, Wirecutter is hardly alone in endorsing the little surveillance gadgets. As the devices have grown in popularity, becoming a bestseller in Amazon’s electronics category, outlets as diverse as USA Today, Nerdwallet, TechRadar, and House Beautiful have run stories encouraging readers to rush out and buy Ring doorbells. Amazon doesn’t disclose sales figures for them, but Ring has said it has “millions” of users, and it’s a leader in one of the fastest-growing categories of smart home devices.

Many sites, including Wirecutter, make money each time a reader buys a product after clicking on their recommendation. Wirecutter, which helped pioneer that “affiliate link” business model, is typically among the most responsible in disclosing these relationships and basing its recommendations on thorough, independent testing. And its decision to pull support for Ring when plenty of other sites still tout the video doorbells is commendable.

What worries Ring’s critics most is not that they’ll be used against their owners. It’s how they affect everyone else.

But the cybersecurity risks of Ring devices are only part of what makes them so problematic. And the fact that it took a series of high-profile breaches for Wirecutter — one of the most responsible and respected review outlets — to reconsider its enthusiasm for Ring highlights a deeper issue in consumer product reviews.

Alarming as the security flaws are, what worries Ring’s critics most is not that they’ll be used against their owners. It’s how they affect everyone else.

As OneZero, Wired, Motherboard, CNET, and others have chronicled, Ring and the Neighbors app are changing the character of American neighborhoods. They’re blanketing streets with private surveillance, stoking fear and suspicion in generally safe communities, and encouraging residents to share their suspicions about people who simply look like they don’t belong. They’re enlisting local police as a de facto marketing arm and encouraging law enforcement to take advantage of an ever-widening, privatized dragnet. If they make their users safer — and it’s not yet fully clear that they do — they may at the same time make people of color feel less safe, and less welcome, just walking down the street. While Ring pays moderators to remove racist comments from Neighbors, anecdotally the app abounds with posts in which people are flagged as suspicious for no apparent reason other than their skin color or attire.

But consumer review sites, generally speaking, don’t put a lot of stock in those externalities. They’re about helping consumers buy devices that fill their own needs and desires — regardless of how they might impinge on the rights or interests of others.

In July, I tweeted a brief criticism of Wirecutter for making a Ring doorbell one of its featured recommendations on Amazon’s Prime Day, for the reasons outlined above. (I had recently written an in-depth look at Amazon’s various surveillance tools, including Ring.) To my surprise, Wirecutter’s Twitter account responded a few days later, thanking me for flagging the issue and saying the team would discuss it. In September, the outlet published a review of Neighbors that called it both “the best and worst neighborhood watch app.” It stood out as an example of how a consumer review site could be about more than just what’s good for the consumer.

But Ring devices remained among the site’s top picks until this week, and Wirecutter’s decision to remove them didn’t mention the societal problems they raise. So while it may have been the right move, it felt like a step back from a future in which the best review sites evaluate products not only on their design, functionality, and price, but on their wider implications — for the environment, for the workers who build and support them, and for the people besides their owners who could be hurt by them.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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