Cloud-connected cameras are convenient and easy to use. They’re also chock-full of features that (obviously) use the cloud, which can be problematic. Before you purchase one, you should know the benefits and pitfalls.
The Problem Is the Cloud
Many Wi-Fi security cameras and video doorbells upload their recorded video to the cloud. In this case, the cloud is a set of servers owned by the camera manufacturer. When they utilize the cloud, manufacturers can offer features that might not be possible otherwise, like expanded storage, motion alerts, people detection, and even facial recognition.
However, recent reports claim Amazon released some Ring camera recordings to police departments without a warrant or the owners’ consent. Amazon later denied the allegation. But if the police do have a warrant, Amazon (or Google, or anyone else) is required to hand over the data. In that situation, the only recourse is to challenge the warrant in court, and the company would make that decision, not you. You might not even be aware of the demand.
It isn’t particularly difficult for law enforcement to obtain a warrant for your data, nor is it supposed to be. Search warrants are meant to prevent frivolous searches. As long as the police (or any other government institution) provide a reasonable explanation for the search, the courts grant the warrant. This applies to any of your data on a company’s servers, whether it’s recorded video, voice mails, or emails.
Warrants aren’t the only concerning thing about storing your data in the cloud. For instance, hackers could steal it, and you might not even know it happened. Just because you store your camera recordings on a large company’s servers, like Google or Amazon, it doesn’t necessarily make them safer.
While Google and Amazon are likely better equipped to fend off a direct attack, hackers often use social engineering to compromise your account details. Instead of breaking into a server directly, the hacker either tricks you or the company into giving him access to your account, and then he logs in as you. Then, he can take whatever he wants, and you might not find out until it’s too late (if at all).
As long as your video data is in the cloud, you ultimately don’t control it—the company that provides the cloud server does.
If You Skip the Cloud, You Lose Features
You don’t have to store your data on the cloud if you’re concerned about it. Some cameras allow you to record locally, and others make the cloud optional. However, if you turn off the cloud, it typically means you lose features.
Many cameras use the cloud to enable motion alerts or continuous recording, for instance. And if you turn off the cloud on a video doorbell, you lose one of our favorite features: smart display integration. Your doorbell’s video stream won’t show up on a Google Nest Hub or an Echo Show if you don’t send your data to the cloud.
If you purchase devices specifically for local control, you can somewhat mitigate the loss. Some cameras, like Wyze’s and the Arlo Pro 2, offer local storage and record continuously to a microSD card.
A few doorbells, like the EUFY, include motion alerts without the cloud, but still don’t offer continuous recording like the Nest Hello.
Even if you drop the cloud, though, it doesn’t mitigate the problem entirely. If the police know you have a camera that might have recorded a crime, they can still obtain a warrant for your data. The warrant will just name you instead of a company.
And hackers can still try to steal your video, but now your home is the avenue of attack instead of social engineering.
What You Can Do
Whether you use local or cloud-connected cameras, you can take steps to mitigate the issues. If you’re worried about hackers, the best thing to do is secure your accounts and home network. Use a unique password for every account, and two-factor authentication whenever possible. As always, we recommend you use a password manager to create and remember unique passwords.
To secure your smarthome network, you should use a strong password for your Wi-Fi router, as well as unique passwords for every device connected to the internet. Whenever possible, update firmware for your network-connected devices, including your cameras. If your devices have automatic firmware updates, make sure they’re enabled.
If you have outdoor cameras, try to place them in areas that make them more difficult to steal. Somewhere high and out of reach is preferable. If you use indoor cameras, consider carefully where you place them. You probably don’t need cameras in your bedroom or bathroom if you already have them facing entrances (like the front or garage doors) and the heavier traffic areas. This way, if someone penetrates your network, at least you can control which areas of your home they might see.
Why We Still Recommend Them
Risks and all, we still recommend cloud-connected cameras. Whether you use Nest, Ring, or Wyze cameras, each company has demonstrated a commitment to security and privacy. After all, anything less would be detrimental to business.
And, as we already covered, even if you disconnect from the cloud, it won’t necessarily protect your data from the government or hackers. Ultimately, all you gain is the comfort of knowing that you alone hold the key to your data. If that’s important to you, then choose a local-recording camera.
We don’t think that benefit outweighs the cost of giving up the cloud. We’re comfortable recommending reputable companies with a track record we can examine. No company’s perfect, but when one does fail, at least we can see how it handles failure—and that’s informative, too.
The most important thing is to look at all the facts and go with what makes you the most comfortable.