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Spy cams: Lesson from Mérida’s police

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Cheap surveillance cameras may be tempting, but you get what you pay for. Photo: Getty
Cheap surveillance cameras may be tempting, but you get what you pay for. Photo: Getty

Mérida, Yucatán — Not all spy cams are created equal. The municipal police maintain surveillance cameras across the city, but since they’re hard wired, they can’t be hacked, officials say. This is an object lesson for homeowners tempted to buy cheap, wireless surveillance systems.

The police cameras, along the Periférico and at various intersections, are connected on a closed-circuit system, and invulnerable to cyber attack.

Sony Pictures’ recent woes have put cyber hacking in the headlines again following reports that web cams around the world had been breached.

Home spy cams, increasingly ubiquitous and affordable at big-box stores, can actually backfire when a potential burglar can view what your camera sees.

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

A summary of the shortfalls Grimes found in low-end cameras, and some advice:

  • Most security cameras and their software aren’t built with computer security in mind. Most home security cameras run on nondefault ports that are well documented and known by attackers. Many people neglect to change the system’s default password.
  • Ask if your camera supports TLS-enabled or other secure connection methods. If not, consider another brand.
  • Many low-end cameras work great at distances up to 20 feet, but fail miserably at distances beyond 30 feet. Pay the premium for high definition and night vision, since most crimes occur after dark.
  • You’ll also want the ability to save video and/or pictures externally. 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.
  • No security cameras broadcasts in precisely real time. Even the most expensive system had a 5-10 second lag time. “I could walk into the field of video, then back to my computer and see myself on screen,” said Grimes.
  • Wireless cameras rarely met their published maximum wireless distances; often it was less than half the stated lengths. And even with wireless, you’ll need power connections, so use wired cameras when possible.
  • Wireless cameras can kill your WIFI. The writer’s wireless cameras brought down his wireless Internet download speed from 100Mbps to 0.40Mbps, essentially rendering it useless.
  • “Weather resistant” cameras are rarely waterproof. Many of the “outdoor” or “weather resistant” cameras failed or were ruined by moderate rain.
  • 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.
  • All the cameras Grimes reviewed had acceptable technical support via the website or email, garnering a response back in a day or two, which he felt was reasonable.

All in all, the columnist concluded that a home-security system was worth the money and effort.

“I feel more secure with my new security cameras installed,” said Grimes. “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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