How Ring re-thought the smart home — even when it made users mad

Jamie Siminoff on two-factor authentication, alarms, drones and privacy.

A Ring doorbell mounted next to a blue door.

Ring's video doorbell has been hugely successful — and occasionally controversial.

Photo: Ring

Tech is currently reckoning with its role in the real world, and what happens when our digital and physical lives collide. Jamie Siminoff, the founder and CEO of Ring, has been thinking about that for a decade. Ring has spent the last few years trying to figure out how to balance privacy and safety, what it takes to make people feel comfortable putting tech in their homes (or with the tech their neighbors may have installed), and what it means to be a good citizen. After some high-profile issues and a lot of scrutiny about its policies, Siminoff and Ring have spent the last couple of years rethinking all of their ideas.

Ring recently announced a number of new products, including the Alarm Pro security system that includes internet backup and a smart-home hub, and the Always Home Cam, a drone designed to fly around your house and keep an eye on things. Those products represent some of Ring's most ambitious work yet, as it tries to both define and refine what home security means.

Siminoff joined the Source Code podcast to discuss Ring's new products, how his thinking on security and privacy have evolved, why a drone might actually be less intrusive than your average security camera, and what it took for Ring to force all its users to turn on two-factor authentication. Oh, and why it's so hard for a computer to tell the difference between a dog and an intruder.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

When Ring was first coming onto the scene, it felt like the beginning of this beautiful era where all of our devices were going to talk to each other, and everything was going to be perfect. We were going to have sensors everywhere. And that, obviously, is not the world we live in right now. What's your perspective on where we are in the smart home journey right now?

What's funny is, I don't have that big of a view on the smart home. Our mission is around making neighborhoods safer. Ring has sort of stuck to our little area of the smart home. And I really do try to focus on building products that will bring benefit — we call our customers neighbors, so bringing sort of real benefit to them — but in a way that the technology disappears.

So when you were saying, we don't have sensors in every area of the home? We kind of do, I think, but I think what's happening is that they're more in the fabric of what's behind our home. When you're picturing that in your brain, like at least what I'm seeing is like this sort of very techy thing with lots of stuff happening. Versus like, I think we're supporting the home better, without having technology be something that is in your face.

I think what the smart home promised actually turned out to be a thing not that many people wanted, which was this wacky, overwrought thing that you could control with your smartphone. And you just showed up, and you're like, "Hey, we built a doorbell that is more useful than your current doorbell." And people are like, "Oh, I get that." Maybe that's the way we should approach all of this stuff.

Yeah, and I mean, luck has a lot to do with success. But it was also because we were trying to solve a problem, not build a solution for a new market. I wasn't a "smart home person." I was a person trying to solve a problem at my front door, which is that I couldn't see what was there.

And then it turned out that the front door is very important, by the way. Our tagline of "Always Home" has actually held up very well; home is a very important place for most people. It has memories, and it has kids running in and out, it has dogs, all these things going on there. And so having presence, being always home, and being able leverage your technology to do that turns out to be really important.

I suspected your answer was going to be that you don't spend a lot of time thinking about the smart home, which I think is really interesting, because part of me feels like you have to now. You make a device that a lot of people are putting into their homes and then building ecosystems around that support that or work with that. And obviously, you're a part of Amazon, which is spending a lot of time thinking about smart home stuff. And so I would think maybe you at least have to think a little bit more about the rest of that ecosystem than maybe you did in the early days of Ring. Is that at least true?

Yeah. I mean, we both have to think about it, and I think it's our responsibility to make sure we're thinking about it. Both from a customer side, as well as just from an industry side, we need to be open, we need to open pieces up. We have worked on Ring API's, we're continuing to invest in that area.

And yes, these things should work together. Because as we do have more of them, it's not going to be one manufacturer or one company supplying this, and the customer shouldn't have to feel that difference. If you want to see your Ring feed on your TV, it shouldn't matter what TV you have in 10 years. It should just be there. There should be an API that works, and every person will write to that API. And that should be the same API for every video. I think we are getting there slowly. But as you know, these things are hard.

If you want to see your Ring feed on your TV, it shouldn't matter what TV you have in 10 years. It should just be there.

The reason I find Ring so fascinating is because I think you started dealing with what tech means in the real world, when it's not just you staring at a screen and a screen doing stuff to you, way earlier than most. And this is the next decade, right? What does it mean for the world when I'm wearing AR glasses? That's a giant question that nobody knows the answer to, and you've been mucking around in this space for a lot longer than most. And my sense is your perspective has changed a lot, even in the last couple of years, about what it means to be a good citizen of the world.

Definitely. I think you have a huge responsibility, especially as you grow, to be a good citizen of the world. Just having a mission that's like, "Oh, that's a nice mission, they must be nice people," that does not make you a good corporate citizen. I always say scrutiny is great. We do see a lot of scrutiny out there in the market. I think that's a healthy reaction from the market, I think you need to listen to it, you need to make sure you're doing the right things.

You know, privacy has to be foundational in any business. I think that is the most core thing, as long as you are protecting your customers' privacy and security — I'll sort of bundle those together — and then transparently giving them control of whatever you're doing for them. Because there are places where people want to use their data to do other things. But I think the key to that is the transparency of making sure they understand when that's happening and what they're doing. That's what companies need to do, because it's also not about just closing it off.

I find myself using the word "agency" more and more in these conversations. What we want is not one end of the spectrum or the other. We want people to be in charge. That just feels like the only way this could turn out in the right way, because everyone's going to want different stuff, and that's fine.

Yeah. Though I call it transparency, because to me, it's a defect if someone says, "Oh, I didn't understand that's what that was." That is such a key here.

My sense is that you've been on a bit of a journey thinking about what that looks like over the last couple of years. In the summer of 2019, you had a pretty bad run of press about what was going on inside of Ring. And it seems very clear that you took that pretty seriously, and did some real work to figure out how to set yourselves up the right way. What was that process like?

Like I said, scrutiny is a healthy part of the market. There are places where I think things were misunderstood that we were doing absolutely right. And I think it was actually bringing more transparency to show what that was.

Things like two-factor authentication, we realized that that is something that you have to force. That was one where we gave the option to our customers to have two-factor authentication. And then we looked at it again and said, "Hey, this is a decision we need to make as a company." And we were, I believe, the first to force two-factor authentication on a smart home platform like ours. So going through that process I think makes you stronger and better. And you just keep doing the right things.

How did it go to force two-factor authentication on people? I can imagine there's some real gut-clenching when you're like, "OK, we're about to make a lot of people who don't necessarily want to do a lot of work on a system like this … do some work on a system like this."

It is a weird thing. Because one side is like, the customer comes first. You want to give them the options, let them choose, all of these things that you've learned all your life. It's what your muscles are taught to do. And all of a sudden, you're saying, do it differently.

I had more angry emails on that decision than anything else we've done in the company. And the kind of ironic part is, we were doing it to protect our customers.

My email is on every box, and so trust me, I had more angry emails on that decision than anything else we've done in the company. And the kind of ironic part is, we were doing it to protect our customers. It wasn't like, "I'm charging you $5 for logins now." It costs me money to have you log in, I have to send you a text! It's the opposite of business logic. But it was the right thing to do. And I've learned it before, but definitely Amazon is like, you do the right things for the long term for your customers. That is so in the DNA of Amazon.

Do you still get angry emails about two-factor authentication?

I do. But I have a response: Not only are we forcing it on you, but you need to put this on everything else. It is too important. This is one of those ones where, no, I'm actually going to push back on you, customer, and I'm sorry, because I really love you. And I paid a lot of money to have you come to my system. But two-factor is such a key. It's such an amazing key for phishing emails, all this stuff, because it does create even just a second breath to look at something.

Going back and reading through all those stories in 2019 was really interesting, because a bunch of the compromised accounts were people whose passwords had been leaked, because they were reusing their passwords. And that's sort of the digital equivalent of leaving your house open and then blaming the lock, right? That feels like a "you" problem. But then on the flip side, I can make an equally compelling case that if you're Ring, or anybody, there is a certain extent to which you have to just realize people are mostly lazy monsters and solve their problems for them.

That is the tension. Partly it's like, "Hey, it's your house, if you want to leave it open, leave it open." Well, I actually know that if you leave it open, there's a high chance something's going to happen. So maybe I shouldn't just let you do that. And so that is the balance. But we just made the decision that, no, we're gonna basically tell you to lock your house. And if you don't like that, then go get a different lock manufacturer, because we do have to have a certain level there.

And also, our mission is not to make money, it really is not. It's to make neighborhoods safer. And we realize you're not making neighborhoods safer if you're not protecting your neighbors and starting there. And so that really became very core to the conversations internally, which was really cool. Well, who are we? And that's when the decisions became easy to make.

And it seems like the decision might have been totally different if you're making, like, smart lights. And the worst possible thing that can happen is somebody can turn your lights off. But when you're doing something like what you're doing, the stakes are higher. And so you have to make those bigger decisions that way.

Totally. There's certain accounts I have online that don't force two-factor where I'm like, wow, these are very important things that I can't believe don't have two-factor —

Shoutout to Bank of America for not forcing two-factor!

But it changed me, even personally. I didn't turn two-factor on for a lot of important accounts. It's not just some average person who doesn't understand tech, you know? I'm in the mix of it. This is something I do every day. And I didn't have good hygiene in my accounts. And so I was like, OK, maybe we do something different.

Even the Ring Alarm Pro that we just launched, a lot of it came from the thinking around this. We were so focused on neighborhood security from the physical layer, and all of a sudden, the digital layer was maybe more, but definitely equally as, important for protecting our neighbors. And it's only getting more important. I don't know if crypto happens or not, but something's happening there. And as people put money into a digital wallet, like that becomes more important.

Your cash that used to sit in your dresser drawer is now sitting in something that could be accessed. We were protecting the dresser drawer before, but we were like, "Hey, wait, we're not actually protecting all of their cash, because their cash has gone digital." And so that's a big part of merging these things together. I think in the future, what you'll see with Ring in 10 years is, I wouldn't be surprised if it's 70-30, where 70% is digital. We probably won't go into antivirus software, but it's this digital home concept.

Your cash that used to sit in your dresser drawer is now sitting in something that could be accessed.

The other thing I want to talk about is how you interact with governments and police departments and things like that, because that's another thing that tons of companies are grappling with right now. Yet again, you get to be ahead of the curve on everybody's complicated questions about the real world. So congratulations on that.

But one thing I've always found fascinating about Ring is that whenever people are surprised that you work with police departments, I'm surprised that they're surprised. Like, there's nothing about Ring's history that would suggest otherwise: You talk about safety, more than you talk about other things. Has it surprised you the extent to which people are surprised about how you have sort of partnered with other groups and governments and stuff like that?

I think it became a super important issue, and we just happened to be a leading company in the area of an important issue that came up. And so we became a big part of that. I think that scrutiny did show, though, that what we built was absolutely correct, because what was misinterpreted is that the police are our customers. And they are not, and they never have been. We've always built products for our neighbors, which is, again, what we call our customers. And it turns out that if you want to make neighborhoods safer, that there's constituents in that neighborhood you have to work with: there's police, there's fire, there's lots of groups you want to work with, to make a neighborhood safer.

And so what we saw is that there was a problem in how that was happening. And for our neighbors, we built a system where police could put a request out. It's an opt-in on a per-request basis. So our customer would see, "Hey, police in your area or fire in your area are requesting video from Thursday to Friday for this incident," and you get to then either transparently interact with them and be part of this through an auditable, digital sort of agreement. Or if you say no, it's completely private, they never even see that they had in essence come to your door. And you've never had to have that situation.

So we really increased, I think, the privacy/security/auditability of a process that was already out there. I think it just caused a lot of confusion as it was being written about. And I think now it does feel like that has gotten to a place where people understand what it is and that it is actually better.

That strikes me as kind of going back to the same thing about transparency. People don't like being surprised, and partly because of the way that a lot of feelings about the tech industry have gone the last few years, I think people are now trained to believe that there is something nefarious going on underneath the surface of everything.

It's the job of any large tech company — and even the job of small tech companies — because small tech companies become large quicker than they think. So you want to start with this. But, like, one thing we heard very quickly was, "how many of these requests are coming out?" We're like, "hey, they're all public." And they said, "but I can't see all of them." And so, oh, we'll put a map up.

To your point, just put it all out there. And when you do that, then people are like, OK, I see everything. I see that it's not bad. But you're right, I think there is that hesitancy in the world today. And I think it's our responsibility to then just realize it and say, yeah, OK, people are concerned, they're going to be worried, let's make sure we build everything with just hyper transparency.

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