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The night my video doorbell revealed my plant thief

Smart tech may help you feel safer but should also come with a warning

Technology can be both wonderful and a curse. Mobile phones mean we always have a means to contact people but, likewise, we expect people to respond almost instantly when we need them.

Social media has given us a way to stay in touch with friends and family we may have lost touch with, but it has also unleashed a torrent of misinformation and abuse. Every facet of our life can be tracked for our benefit, but at the expense of our privacy.

I was thinking about this recently when we were the victims of a theft. A couple of weeks ago, in the early hours of the morning, a woman walked up to my front door and stole two potted trees. Then she headed back down the drive, lugging the pots, and off down the road.

I know who comes to my door and when, thanks to my video doorbell. As does anyone else who has access to the account

It took several days to notice they were missing. Blame it on a busy schedule or house blindness; I knew something had changed but couldn’t figure out exactly what.


It was nothing major, not too valuable, but they were mine. They were the first I’d managed to keep alive for anything longer than a month; the idea that someone would stroll into the garden at 4am and be so blatant about it was galling. And we weren’t the only ones who had been visited that morning.

I can be precise about the time because, as it happens, we caught the whole thing on video. We, like many around us, have a video doorbell installed. Once I realised the trees were AWOL, I went back through the video footage to see if I could find out exactly when they went missing. That night, it picked up the neighbour’s cat, a spider and the aforementioned plant thief in her dressing gown and flip flops, making off with my carefully nurtured trees.

Not that it makes much of a difference. We’ve been down this road before, and short of catching someone in the act there is little that can be done from a legal perspective.

Posting it online to find the culprit, as some people suggested, would risk me becoming a data controller and all the obligations that entails. So the footage serves as little more than a reminder that I managed to keep the trees from dying for seven whole months, only for someone else to benefit from my hard work.

While the better known – and more expensive – brands score reasonably well on security out of the box, lesser-known brands can raise some red flags

But it also got me thinking about the complete lack of privacy that we have these days. I know who comes to my door and when, thanks to my video doorbell. As does anyone else who has access to the account; last week I had to smuggle in a birthday present for my husband because the branded bag would have given away the surprise. Likewise, the wifi-connected smoke alarm gave away the time he burned the kids’ dinner while I was at a conference in the United States. Nothing is sacred.

The coffee maker, oven and the dishwasher tell you via smartphone notifications that they are done. Our alarm system alerts us when windows are left open and when they are closed, when the alarm is set and when it is disarmed. In short, you can’t enter or leave our home without a smart home device somewhere knowing about it.

If this technology had been around in my teenage years, things would have been very different. There would have no been no sneaking in at 5am and swearing you got home just after midnight. Our children will never know the adrenaline rush of pulling that one off – or at the very least thinking you’ve got away with it. The internet has put paid to that.

It’s not just your teenagers that will be tattled on though. Your video doorbell may help you feel safer at home, but such devices should also come with a warning. Not all are created equally, and what is intended to make you feel safe could end up becoming a nuisance or even a security risk to your home.

In this case at least, you get what you pay for. While the better known – and more expensive – brands score reasonably well on security out of the box, lesser-known brands can raise some red flags.

Last year, Which magazine looked at 11 doorbells for sale on online marketplaces. At first glance they may have seemed like a bargain, some with positive customer reviews and promoted as a top seller. However, they had serious security issues that could have not only let hackers access your video footage, but in some cases your home network by transferring your wifi name and password to servers unencrypted.

None of that is to say that you shouldn’t have a fully connected smart home if you want it. Research the brand, change the password, enable two-factor authentication and keep the software up to date to help minimise the risk. Be choosy about who you allow into your home, or else giving away your late nights may be the least of your worries.