November - December 2017

His Eye is On the Sparrow… and the Rabbits—
Internet Security Cameras

Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Church Tech

In our house we sometimes engage in a lively discussion of the imponderables, like how do the rabbits escape their pen (yes, we have pet rabbits), who leaves our front door unlocked, and who dumps their dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the dishwasher. In search of answers to these mysteries, I decided to purchase an Internet security camera.

This category of device has grown in popularity over the past few years, and many options are available. Some of the leading brands are: Nest, Canary, Logitech, and Arlo. Common features include an HD-quality camera, easy set up, quality night vision capabilities, and the ability to hear and talk back via an embedded speaker. Most cameras also have a wide angle lens—120 degrees or more is common—so you can see a broader area. And lastly, a companion smartphone app is typical. The app allows you to set up the device, and configure its options with ease from your phone, and to see what the camera sees.

Amazon recently joined this category with a low-priced Cloud Cam and, trying to minimize my cost, I went with it. With this type of camera you need to decide which storage options you prefer. Such cameras upload video to a service provided by the vendor. You may also have to pay a monthly or annual fee to access recorded video, or you may receive a short period of time for viewing at no additional cost.

With the Cloud Cam I could access video from the most recent 24 hours at no additional charge. While I can use the app anytime to see what the camera is currently viewing, I can only see motion-activated recordings from the past. Some cameras record 24/7 even if the only thing happening is dust settling; others store video on a self-contained memory card. If your Internet connection is slow or metered, or if you feel uncomfortable with video being uploaded to the Internet, you might prefer this type of device. Also, consider how many cameras you intend to purchase. There are a variety of pricing plans, according to brand, for multiple cameras.

The average time a burglar spends in a house is 8 to 12 minutes.

My primary reason for purchasing a camera was to sample the new technology, find out what our pets do all day, and shake my finger at the recalcitrant dish washer, but most people use them for security purposes. The app can notify my phone when it senses motion or a person. Theoretically, if it saw someone in my house during the day (most burglaries occur between 10:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M.), it could notify me, and I could take a look and call the police if appropriate.

In practice this would not work for me. If I am on the phone, driving, or in a meeting, I do not pay attention to notices on my phone. If someone broke into my home, and my phone alerted me, I might not notice it for over an hour. The average time a burglar spends in a house is 8 to 12 minutes. By the time I noticed his presence, it would be too late, although the video could help police to identify the intruder after the fact.

My experience was that in daytime the video allowed me to recognize a person up to about 10 feet away. Night vision is not as crisp when a person is more than 5 feet away, and in my house the shade in the entryway on a cloudy day kept the camera in night mode. Could I identify a face well enough to pick someone out of a lineup? Maybe; maybe not.

If you buy a camera that stores video locally on a card in the device, then the burglar just needs to steal the camera itself and you lose the footage of the theft. If your video is recorded to the Internet, with a little planning, the thief could cut your phone/cable connection before entering your house and avoid being recorded. If you are truly interested in a system that provides strong security, a professional one that is monitored by individuals and detects tampering would be more effective than the types of devices I am describing.

Whatever your motivation for purchasing a security camera, I recommend discussing it ahead of time with the other members of your household. As a parent, I sympathize with a desire to know that the kids are okay and safe. But I am also wary of the possible negative effect of too much tracking. Most of the time trust and good conversation with children seem like a better course of action than monitoring. So make sure everyone knows you are setting up cameras and where they will be. By the way, many of these cameras have a “geo-fencing” feature. This means the device knows when you are at home and will not record.

So, did our camera solve the mysteries of our house? Having a bunny-cam was amusing, since being able to issue a vocal reprimand across the Internet when one of them was being naughty was very effective.

Whether the camera had a similar effect on human residents is less certain. What I do know is that the front door remains fortified (a relatively simple way to improve home security), and fewer dishes are being left in the sink.

For more burglary statistics, visit this link.

Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 20 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.