Home security with your PC

Synopsis:

Following on from a piece I wrote in 2003 - which you can read via the Links section - this article from early 2005 explains some of the ways in which PCs and other computer technology can be used to keep your home safe, and includes linked product reviews.

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All too often, home security is something we don't give much attention to until something happens that makes us, whether it's a burglary, a prowler trampling the plants or someone close to us becoming a victim of crime. Most of us have reasonable locks on doors and windows, because the insurance company tells us we must. But relatively few bother with burglar alarms; they can be fiddly to wire up, people in cities won't pay much attention to them when they do go off, and monitored alarms that can summon the emergency services have costly subscriptions. So why bother?

The fact is that more and more of us are filling our homes with equipment that can be attractive to thieves. Besides TVs and videos, we've embraced DVD players; it's more common than before for homes to have more than computer. Our sideboards and shelves are littered with iPods, digital cameras, and PDAs. But still, too many of us think it's a hassle to have a proper security system to protect it all.

But the truth is, it needn't be a hassle and you might already have some of what you need to keep your house - or your office - and its contents secure. With a broadband connection, for instance, you can install security cameras that will be able to alert your mobile phone if an intruder is spotted or simply let you watch what's happening whenever you want. You can arrange for an email to be received at work if your smoke alarm is triggered. Or you could even control lights and curtains, to make your home look occupied, even if you're not in.

Safe as houses

When most people think about having a burglar alarm installed, they consider one of two options. The first is a professionally installed system, often with a monitoring service. The second - after the cost of the first has been discovered ? is a DIY system, of the sort that you can buy from any home improvement store. Before looking at the high tech computerised alternatives, it's worth looking first at what you'd expect from a security system for your home.

Most burglar alarms have similar features; there are motion detectors, positioned so that anyone who enters your home will be very likely to trigger at least one of them. There are door and window sensors, at least one of which is likely to be part of an entry path - a set of sensors that doesn't trigger an alarm immediately, but allows you time to switch the system off when you return home. And then there'll be a siren of some type. Typically, sirens serve two purposes; the first is to alert the intruder to the fact that they've been noticed, hopefully ensuring that they decide to leave before taking any of your belongings. The second reason for having a siren is that it will attract the attention of other people, like neighbours or the police. The truth of the matter, of course, is that in many areas, an alarm may just become part of the background noise, and be ignored.

To avoid that, many professionally installed alarm system provide a monitoring service; in the past, people used to have their alarms set up to notify the police directly. The number of people with alarms means that's no longer practical; instead, alarms can be connected to a monitoring centre, where operators can respond to the alarm and then call your home, requesting a password from anyone who answers, or alerting the emergency services if they think there's a genuine alarm. Monitoring services can end up being a regular commitment; your alarm won't be as useful without one, and you can pay over 20 a month for the service; a sum which can soon mount up, and you're unlikely to get a matching reduction in your household insurance premiums.

It doesn't take much thought, however, to work out that just because home security has tended to work in a particular way in the past, it has to be done the same way in the future. We're all used to the CCTV cameras that cover streets, car parks and shops; Britain is one of the most monitored societies in the world. And many of us have used web cams to chat with friends and family over the internet. It's not such a great leap to put the two together and realise that your computer could form the basis of a networked home monitoring system; with always-on broadband connections, it should be possible to keep an eye on things from wherever you are, and since your computer is probably just idling away time when you're out, why not press it into service?

PC plod

One of the biggest changes that we've seen in home computing over the last few years is the introduction of broadband net access, usually charged at a flat rate. That means that it's much more practical than before to connect to your PC when you're away from home, whether in the office or a cybercafe. Typically people use the facility to access files they've left at home, or to set up a VPN. But an always on connection can equally well be used as part of your home security.

What, exactly, will you use the PC for when it comes to home security, though? The fact is, there is a wide range of tasks the computer can do when it comes to monitoring - but there are also some potential pitfalls to be wary of. What happens, for example, if the PC crashes? Or Windows decides to load a critical update while you're away, which breaks one of your security programs. And if your computer's always connected to the net, and accessible from elsewhere, what happens if there's a new virus or security exploit that means your PC is compromised? You can't put the PC at the heart of your home security system without making sure that you've addressed these concerns.

In fact, before going any further, it's worth considering whether the PC itself should really be at the heart of your security system. In most of the products that we've looked at, that's not the case; it may be useful adjunct in some ways, but it's not an essential component.

We'd recommend that, whatever type of security system you have, you invest in a broadband router with a built-in firewall; it'll provide extra protection against attacks on your PC, and it also means that you can easily connect things such as network video cameras, leaving the potentially troublesome PC switched off, saving money on electricity as well as removing a point of failure from your security system.

One of the systems that we looked at, BT's Home Monitor, doesn't in fact use your PC at all, other than to complete the initial sign-up process. The Home Monitor is a DIY burglar alarm, in many respects identical to those available from stores like B&Q, with a few extras to enable monitoring via the internet.

As we explained earlier, many professionally installed alarm systems have a call centre, whose staff will try to contact you by phone when a sensor is triggered, and determine whether or not the emergency services need to be called. The BT Home Monitor works in a similar way, but replaces the call centre with a computer system connected to the internet. While it was overpriced when introduced, recent cuts make it a much more attractive option, and the monthly service charge is a reasonable 5. The system connects to your phone line, and calls the monitoring computer when an event occurs; you can add contact details via a web interface at www.myhomemonitoring.bt.com. When the alarm is triggered, contacts are alerted by email, text message or phone call. It's not the most high tech of solutions, and we have some reservations - see the review - but It's simple to install, works like a standard alarm, and is much cheaper than a traditional monitored system via a call centre. The very fact that it's not reliant on a PC to keep track of security will appeal to some.

Always on, always aware

While the simplicity of a traditional alarm control box will appeal to some, the possibilities offered by a PC are much greater. Using home automation technologies, such as X10, it's possible to program the computer to turn lights and appliances on and off, triggered by time of day or movement sensors, and to sound alarms too. Whether simply automating your home to make it look occupied, or responding to movement by turning on floodlights outside and sending an email, home automation is a fairly straightforward way to improve your security. You can set up many systems without the need for a PC, though adding a controller than connects to your computer, usually via a USB or serial port, means that you can create much more sophisticated reactions to events, and even control things when you're away from home.

One of the products that we tested can be expanded with X10 controllers, and web sites such as Intellihome or Lets Automate have a wide range of controllers and modules that can be installed to provide a range of functions; you could, for example, use a X10 smoke detector together with software on your PC to alert you via email if there's a fire - essentially the same job as BT's Home Monitoring service, but without the monthly charges.

For many people, though, one of the most attractive options that a computer offers compared to other security systems, is video monitoring. We're all familiar with webcams, and it's not hard to see how the technology can be put to use for security - there are indeed several programs that will work with a cheap web cam, recording to hard disk when movement is detected. And if money's really tight, you can use Microsoft's Windows Media Encoder software to record days of video at CCTV quality onto a modest sized hard drive.

One of the reasons that computer-based video monitoring is popular is the ease of installation - especially in offices, where existing network cables can be used to connect a camera, avoiding the need to have special cabling installed just for video. And with wireless cameras, you may not need any cabling at all. On top of that, your computer can record video, providing evidence if necessary, and without the need to keep a stack of tapes and remember to rotate them. Do remember though, that if you're monitoring an office, or you have people working in your home, you can't just decide to capture everyone on film (see box, CCTV and the law).

It's worth checking, however, just what's offered by this sort of monitoring. Some systems, like the InControl Quadcam, use a controller to connect cameras to the PC, and allow remote monitoring using their own applications. In fact, with the QuadCam system you can even monitor your cameras remotely when your PC is connected via a dialup net link, though you'll have to pay an annual service charge of £50.

Other cameras, like the D-Link and Veo models we tested, dispense with the need for a computer at all, by having built in web servers; you might think that makes them more broadly compatible, but in fact both rely on ActiveX controls to display video in the browser, meaning that you will be tied to Windows when you want to see what's happening. It's also worth checking whether WEP or WPA wireless encryption is offered by wireless cameras ? if it's not the same as your wireless access point, you'll have to make a trade-off between physical security and network security Check too to see what wireless standard is in use. Adding a 802.11b security camera to an 802.11g network will work, but it will also force the network to run at the slower speed..

There's little doubt, though, that with digital cameras, whether linked via your PC or directly to the network, it's much cheaper - and easier - than before to keep an eye on your property or your employees when you're elsewhere. Even if you install more than one camera - most come with software to allow you to watch several at a time, or in sequence, just like traditional CCTV - it's still much cheaper than analogue camera systems. If you are planning on having several network cameras, however, do check how easy it is to access them from outside your network ? you may have difficulties with port mapping on your router.

Stay safe

Ultimately, the best choice of security system will depend on what you want to spend and how much protection you're after. A simple webcam can cost under 30 and will record everything that happens in the room it's pointing at. Or you can spend under 100 to for an alarm; camera systems too are cheaper than you might think, with basic network cameras starting at little over 100, with wireless models from under 200 - though if you want to use them outside, you'll have to pay extra for a suitable housing, as none of the models we looked at are suitable for outdoor use. You can find more details in the reviews.

Whatever your budget and needs, setting up a networked security system is a lot simpler and easier than you might think; but don't forget that it's not just about technology - a visit from your local Crime Prevention Officer for advice is a good place to start, before you spend money on network security devices.

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