Smart home technology smart for homeowners? Police may use footage against them

Your lights are off and your doors are locked, but if you've got a "smart home" system, you may be offering cops a window into your house.

Smart home technology is the latest craze among big tech and telecom companies, which are rolling out products that allow people to remotely control things like lights and locks and view footage from security cameras via mobile devices. Apple became the latest company to get in on the act earlier this month, unveiling a new software platform called HomeKit that will allow people to manage their connected devices with their iPads or iPhones.

Companies like AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner Cable already offer smart home systems. Google, meanwhile, bought connected device maker Nest Labs earlier this year and has reportedly looked into purchasing security camera maker Dropcam as well.

But smart home customers might be unaware that their security footage is being stored in some cases, and that it can be used against them in legal proceedings.

"We're seeing law enforcement across a variety of areas arguing that they should be able to access information with lower standards than before the electronic age," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If a lot of information is flowing out of your home, it provides a window into the things you're doing in your private space," he added.

Tech companies already get thousands of requests for customer data each year from government intelligence agencies as well as traditional law enforcement for things like email and phone records. Once home security footage begins being stored on companies' servers, there's no reason why cops wouldn't seek that out as well.

That means you may want to study the terms of service from your smart home provider to see what kinds of requirements they place on government and law enforcement data requests.

There are generally two ways the government or cops can get their hands on smart home data: search warrants and subpoenas. Warrants are authorized by judges when prosecutors show there is "probable cause" to believe that a specific piece of evidence they're seeking may be related to criminal activity. The standard for subpoenas is much lower, generally requiring only that the information being sought be relevant to an investigation. Some subpoenas require that the subject of the information request be notified and given a chance to challenge it, though some do not.

AT&T spokeswoman Gretchen Schultz said that if law enforcement officials are seeking smart home footage in a criminal investigation, the company requires them to provide a search warrant before the video is released. If the request comes in the form of a civil subpoena, she added, AT&T requires consent from the customer in question.

Time Warner Cable said it requires a subpoena before releasing pictures or video footage from its smart home system to law enforcement.

Dropcam declined to comment on how it handles government video requests, though it said footage is stored for only 30 days at a maximum. Apple declined to comment, while Verizon did not respond to requests for comment.

"People should be asking what steps the companies are taking to encrypt and make sure that their information is private," said Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Consumers really should be looking for companies that say they will only turn over footage with a search warrant."

There's also the possibility of smart home footage being sought by plaintiffs in civil cases. Location data from toll tags like E-ZPass, for example, has previously been used in divorce proceedings.

"Any time there's a data trail being generated, litigants in all varieties of litigation, civil or criminal, will want to get their hands on it," Fakhoury said.

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