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How to make sure your smart home camera isn’t constantly watching you

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor
·4-min read
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More Americans than ever are bringing smart devices into their homes. According to NPD Group, half of us had some kind of smart device as of February 2021. That’s up from 35% in January 2020.

And as those devices advance in capability, more of them, including Amazon’s (AMZN) Echo Show 10 and Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max, are adding cameras to let you video chat with friends and family and, in the case of the Nest devices, serve as in-home security cameras.

But how do we make sure those cameras aren't watching our every move when we're home? Some of us have resorted to the tried and true trick of putting tape over the cameras on our devices, while others turn them around when they’re not in use. But, inevitably, you’ll forget to turn around your camera, or take that piece of tape off, eliminating the ability to use your slick new gadget as a security camera while you’re away.

Thankfully, most of these smart cameras come with built-in features that ensure they automatically switch off while you’re home and turn back on when you’re away.

Geofencing to the rescue

Geofencing is a feature built into a number of smart home apps that automatically activates and deactivates features, specifically your device’s camera, depending on your smartphone’s location. And it’s a huge help.

Most of the major smart home cameras on the market respond to movement, so moving around your home will set them off, which can lead to a collection of videos of you milling about your kitchen. Geofencing automatically disables that feature, so your device doesn’t respond to movement.

An Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd generation) smart display and multimedia speaker, taken on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Phil Barker/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
An Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd generation) smart display and multimedia speaker, taken on March 1, 2021. (Photo by Phil Barker/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Geofencing also means you won’t end up cursing yourself when you realize you’ve left for the day and didn’t turn your device’s camera back on to monitor your home.

Apps from Google’s Nest and Amazon’s Ring have geofencing capabilities built into their settings menus that are easy to set up and activate in no time. Amazon’s Echo Show 10 doesn’t record video, and the camera is only active when you call it up via an Alexa notification, so geofencing is more or less unnecessary in that respect. You can, however, use your smartphone to access the Echo Show 10’s camera while away.

Chances are your device won’t refer to its geofencing features as such. Google, for instance, calls the feature Presence sensing. When setting up the option, your phone will ask if you want to give the app permission to track your location at all times. And while you might not like that idea, it’s the only way to ensure that geofencing works properly.

You’ll also need to enter your address into the smart device’s app settings. This allows the device to know where it’s located, and get a general read that you’re away. With that set up, you can change the device’s app settings to switch the camera off when your device detects that you’re home and turn the camera back on when you leave.

Naturally, you can add members of your household to the geofencing feature to ensure that whenever anyone is home, the camera is off unless you want to activate it for video chats.

Physical shutters and deleting video

If you don’t trust that your device’s software alone will keep it from spying on you, there’s a more direct approach to turning the camera off: a physical shutter.

Most of today’s smart devices feature shutters that you can slide over to cover the cameras when not in use. Some also have dedicated buttons that disable the microphone.

The downside? You can’t switch the shutter back when you’re away from home if you forget to re-enable your camera when you step out.

As far as video recorded from your devices, each company offers a means to delete it from your device’s apps. Amazon, for instance, allows you to delete video automatically after a set amount of time, or manually delete it whenever you want.

If you’ve set up your system to take advantage of all of these features, you should be able to use your in-home camera with the peace of mind that it’s not going to catch you lounging on your couch streaming “The Office” and downing some White Claws.

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoofinance.com over via encrypted mail at danielphowley@protonmail.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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