Thinking of buying a security camera? Read this first

When things go bump in the night, you want to see what they are, without opening the door. But security cameras come with vulnerabilities too

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Credit: iStockphoto

I live in a fairly safe area. I haven’t heard about any crimes in my neighborhood since I’ve lived here. But like you, I read about crime every day online, and it seems that about half the time a security camera is used to identify and arrest the suspect. To be safe, I decided to select a security camera for my home.

I spent months researching security cameras online. I bought and tried several models, all designed to be accessed over the Internet, ranging from the cheap ones you can buy at Target to the high-end variety.

I learned a lot from my little adventure. First of all, you maybe surprised to discover that security cameras can be hacked. Monitoring your surroundings sounds like a fine idea, but be forewarned that you’ll also open the possibility that a motivated hacker could see what your cameras see. That may be a showstopper, depending on who you are, which is why I’ve detailed those concerns up front. If not, read this entire post for my advice on how to choose and set up a security camera system.

Security cameras aren’t all that secure

Most security cameras and their software aren’t built with computer security in mind. None of the vendors could provide me with a clear understanding of code reviews and penetration testing. In fact, most of my security inquiries were met with befuddlement. Often I was called back by someone days later who either did not know the answers to my questions or said yes to everything I asked so often, you knew they were not telling the truth.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most security cameras and their software are probably easily hackable. Your security device could be an ingress point for external hackers into your physical life.

Google-hack your camera

Do some Google searches on the system you’re considering. You might be surprised by what you find. Most security cameras run on nondefault ports that are well documented and known by attackers. It allows them to scan the Internet, look for those ports to find the cameras, then use their tricks to exploit your devices.

Change your password

Make sure you change the password needed to access and/or configure your security cameras or administrative console. Google-hacking security cameras that failed to change the default password are easy to spot. In fact, entire websites are dedicated to helping would-be intruders access security cameras using default passwords.

Ensure your management console uses an encrypted connection

Most security camera consoles allowed me to connect using insecure connection methods. Ask if your camera supports TLS-enabled or other secure connection methods. If not, consider another brand.

It’s all about the glass

Many low-end cameras work great up to distances of 10 to 20 feet, but fail miserably at distances beyond 30 to 40 feet. By contrast, most high-end cameras are able to accurately capture people at 75 to 100 feet, often in HD or near HD. Video clarity will cost you, but when you’re showing your video or pictures to law enforcement, the clearer the better.

Features to look for

Not surprisingly, the more you spend, the better the quality and the more features you get. Of the higher-end features, I’d put night vision at the top – after all, crimes have a tendency to occur after dark. Motion detection is also desirable, but make sure you can adjust the sensitivity and narrow the range of the scan. You don’t want legitimate moving objects such as windblown plants generating false positives. If you can properly tune the system, you may also want it to send a text message to your phone when motion is detected.

You'll also want the ability to save video and/or pictures externally (great for law enforcement purposes). Also, if a crime is caught on camera, the ability to play back video at high speed will help you find the event, and slo-mo will help you determine exactly what happened. Finally, higher-end models come with a separate DVR to record video, which is a good idea if you plan to keep your cameras running all the time.

Placing your cameras

I’m not a physical security expert, but in a multicamera scenario you’ll want to place cameras at all your ingress points (front door, back door, gate, and so on) at the very least. I was able to place cameras outside and inside each ingress point.

I should note that my wife wasn’t happy when I placed a camera in our bedroom. I figured she’d appreciate the extra security, but she was far more worried about my ability to prevent unauthorized viewers from accessing our cameras. Truth be told, I couldn’t promise her that would never happen.

Price doesn't determine lag time

All security cameras have some delay versus real time, and the cost or quality of the camera doesn't determine the severity of the lag. On the most expensive cameras I tested, the lag could be 5 to 10 seconds or more. I could walk into the field of video, then back to my computer and see myself on screen.

Lag can be especially tricky when paired with motion detection. Many of the cameras would correctly send me motion detection alerts, but the images they sent or captured often didn’t include whatever caused it.

Use wired cameras when possible

I needed wireless cameras for my home, but I couldn’t drag cable between my security camera DVR and some of my outside ingress points. Sadly, the wireless cameras rarely met their published maximum wireless distances; often it was less than half the stated lengths. Also, even with wireless, you’ll need power connections.

Wireless cameras can kill your wireless Internet

When I turned on my wireless security cameras, my wireless Internet access plummeted from 100Mbps download speeds to 0.40Mbps, essentially rendering it useless. As it happened, the wireless security cameras and their receivers run on the same 2.4GHz frequency as many wireless Internet connections. Ultimately, I had to buy a new home wireless Internet access point that supported the newer 5GHz frequencies and replace any Internet devices stuck at 2.4GHz. The wireless cameras did not have any settings that allowed to hard-code wireless channels or change frequencies.

"Weather resistant" cameras are rarely waterproof

Many of the “outdoor” or “weather resistant” cameras failed or were ruined by moderate rain. You'll either need to buy cameras that are explicitly waterproof or work out some sort of durable protection for outdoor cameras.

Get dynamic DNS to access your cameras while traveling

Unless your home Internet connection has a static IP address, you’ll need to subscribe to a dynamic DNS service and configure your Internet routers to report any IP address changes to that service. Plus, you’ll need to configure your routers to advertise your camera’s remote access port(s) to get that feature to work.

Technical support

To end on a good note, all the cameras I reviewed had acceptable technical support. Most technical support was via the website or email, but I always received a response back in a day or two, which I felt was reasonable.

I feel more secure with my new security cameras installed. I already caught some neighborhood critters causing damage in my yard and have worked out a preventative measure. But I also live with the fact that any Internet-accessible security cameras can probably be exploited and used to invade my privacy. Like most security-related matters, a security camera can be a double-edged sword.

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