Facial recognition is coming to more smart home cameras: Why you should be worried

The Nest Cam IQ, which offers built-in facial recognition. (Image credit: Google)

Don’t look now, but facial recognition is about to become a big part of smart homes.

Facial-recognition technology built into cameras offers the promise of greater security and personalization, but it is also a potential privacy nightmare. And it’s about to become a huge part of smart homes.

The facial-recognition future

Imagine that as you walk into your house, a home security camera recognizes your face and automatically adjusts the temperature, lights and music to your preferred settings. If your partner gets home first, the system adjusts automatically to their favorite presets. 

If a person that your system doesn’t recognize approaches your house, you (or your security company) then get an alert, with a picture of the person. Now, that person could be delivering a package from Amazon, or could be a neighbor passing by. 

In 2020, as artificial intelligence and computer vision gets more sophisticated and more cost-effective, we’re going to see a lot more devices with facial-recognition technology. 

Given the issues that have arisen with home security cameras that don’t have this technology, consumers are going to have to be much more careful about which products they choose to purchase, and which features they choose to enable. And the companies who make these products are going to have to get a lot more serious about their security.

Who has facial recognition now....

Currently, there are only a handful of smart home devices with facial recognition: Nest’s video doorbell and IQ security cameras, as well as indoor security cameras from Netatmo and Tend Secure

The Nest Hub Max, too, can recognize your face when you enter a room and bring up personal information, such as how long it’ll take you to get to work. And millions of iPhone owners use Face ID to unlock their phones.

And who's getting it soon

At CES 2020, a number of companies announced products with facial-recognition technology.

  • Abode: An indoor/outdoor camera that ties into its DIY security system.
  • ADT: An indoor and outdoor security camera, as well as a video doorbell, as part of its new Blue by ADT home security kit.
  • LG: ThinQ Home Smart Door, which uses AI to identify visitors as they approach your house. 
  • Swann: A wireless security camera and video doorbell with optional facial recognition for up to 10 people.

There was even a company showing off a litter box for cats that has facial recognition, so you know which of your feline friends is doing his business. 

There were a handful of other lesser-known companies that also touted facial recognition, too. Even Ring has toyed with the idea, said Amazon exec Dave Limp during an interview he gave to Wired at CES.  

What could possibly go wrong?

This is problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that these companies don’t take security seriously enough. As we saw with Ring, Wyze, Blink, and others, when an unknown party can gain access to your security camera, they can cause all sorts of problems. 

For many of the news stories about Ring, it’s because those camera owners didn’t have strong enough passwords, or didn’t use two-factor authentication (2FA). But the onus was on the owners — Ring didn’t make strong passwords or 2FA a mandatory requirement. And Blink doesn’t even have 2FA as an option. 

Currently, if you have privacy issues with a security camera, the problems are  limited to just you and your family, which is concerning enough. But if a camera with facial recognition were to be compromised, then the hacker would be able to have identifying information not just about you, but about anyone whose face was in the camera’s system.

Then there’s the issue of what happens to the faces that these camera records. If you have a doorbell camera with this technology, it might pick up and store the faces of random passers-by. Before you know it, you’d have a database of all your neighbors, without them knowing. 

In that same Wired interview, Limp said he was proud of Ring’s partnership with law enforcement in its Neighbors app, in which police departments can view footage of potential suspicious incidents. 

Police don’t have access to those videos unless a homeowner gives them permission — something Ring has been less than transparent about in the past — but imagine if those faces were sent to the cloud, where they could be matched up with, say, Amazon’s Rekognition software, which can match faces with a huge database?

What to know before buying a camera with facial recognition

Before you purchase a security camera, especially one with facial recognition, ask yourself these questions:

  1.  Does the company’s app have, at the bare minimum, two-factor authentication? 
  2.  Is the facial recognition being done locally on the device rather than in the cloud? 
  3.  Can you turn facial recognition off? 
  4.  What happens to the videos the camera records? 

If you can’t get satisfactory answers to these questions, then you might want to skip that product. Home security is important, but not if that means a loss of your privacy.

Mike Prospero
U.S. Editor-in-Chief, Tom's Guide

Michael A. Prospero is the U.S. Editor-in-Chief for Tom’s Guide. He oversees all evergreen content and oversees the Homes, Smart Home, and Fitness/Wearables categories for the site. In his spare time, he also tests out the latest drones, electric scooters, and smart home gadgets, such as video doorbells. Before his tenure at Tom's Guide, he was the Reviews Editor for Laptop Magazine, a reporter at Fast Company, the Times of Trenton, and, many eons back, an intern at George magazine. He received his undergraduate degree from Boston College, where he worked on the campus newspaper The Heights, and then attended the Columbia University school of Journalism. When he’s not testing out the latest running watch, electric scooter, or skiing or training for a marathon, he’s probably using the latest sous vide machine, smoker, or pizza oven, to the delight — or chagrin — of his family.