Home Security and the Computer

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2650, 2008-12-12, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 6-8) and their website.

There is an old saying that "a man's home is his castle", and it concisely reflects how the home — regardless of how modest in location, size, or furnishing — is the place where most people feel the safest. Thus, protecting one's homestead should be a top priority, whether it be a tract house in the suburbs, a loft in a downtown area, an RV in a camp, or any other form of abode.

The history of home security could fill a book, and encompasses a wide range of available measures for preventing intrusion into the house itself or onto the property, detection of any trespassers, and the electronic recording of such intrusions, with the advent of still cameras and later video cameras in the modern era. High-tech solutions now include infrared beams, pressure sensitive devices, motion detection, audio alarms, and more. The more sophisticated and elaborate the devices, the greater the financial cost and complexity. Yet these expenses are easily justified if the property being protected is quite valuable, to say nothing of the occupants.

The chosen security measures do not have to be used singly, but instead can be combined into an overall security plan that is more effective than the sum of its components. Just as with securing a computer or a network, doing the same for a house is best done as a multi-layered strategy. Yet the costs of different components can vary widely; for instance, an armed guard would prove financially prohibitive for the typical home, though would probably be cost effective for a large gated community.

Electronic monitoring devices, such as those mentioned above, can significantly reduce the overall cost of security. Detractors of such measures point out that they lack the human judgment of an armed guard, and they also lack the side benefits of a guard dog, such as companionship for the family. On the other hand, human and canine guards are not flawless, and lack the photographic memories that can be crucial in a court case against burglars and other intruders. In addition, if the greater cost of non-electronic security measures means an individual homeowner would have to do without any protection, then the electronic alternatives are better than nothing.

Arm That Alarm

Given the many advantages of electronic security systems, it is little wonder that a sizable private security industry has developed over the years — particularly in the United States, which, compared to other developed countries, has higher overall rates of crime, especially homicide and other violent felonies. According to some published estimates, even as early as 1990, organizations and people were spending over $50 billion combined for private security equipment and services, which was significantly greater than the $30 billion devoted to public police forces at the time.

For homeowners, this usually takes the form of a home security system, incorporating motion sensors on doors and windows, as well as lights and audible alarms that are triggered by the detection of any intrusion, once the system has been armed. Even self-closing garage doors are now on option. In fact, so many homeowners are opting for such systems, that new homes are oftentimes prewired so that a security system can be easily added. For homes that are not prewired, or for which wiring could be a major hassle, Wi-Fi is an alternative increasingly being chosen by homeowners.

These alarm systems can be supplemented with monitoring by an outside security service. This approach has the advantage that these firms specialize in home security, and, if competent, can avoid the mistakes commonly made by the average homeowner who decides to set up their own system and try to monitor it while sitting in a cubicle miles away. On the other hand, security services charge nontrivial fees, and can also provide burglars with information that would be quite difficult to obtain otherwise. A personal example can illustrate this: Many years ago, a neighbor of my family hired an outside security company, which sent over a car filled with young men in ill-fitting suits, who were given a full tour of the house and an opportunity to see all of its security flaws. Within a few weeks, the house was burglarized. While this is anecdotal, a security firm can be quite reputable, and yet all it takes is one compromised employee to put their clients' homes at risk.

Self-Reliant Security

Instead of outsourcing the monitoring — or perhaps in conjunction with it — the homeowner can set up a system that will allow her to receive an immediate alert of any detected security problem. This can include an automated phone call or text to her cell phone, or a message to her Web-based e-mail address. (Most if not all municipalities do not allow automated calls to 911. Check with your locals law enforcement authorities.)

The greater the number and variety of devices monitoring your home, the more valuable will be the investment that you make in receiving any sort of alert. Start with Webcams covering all of the ground-level entrances, i.e., doors and windows. If positioned at the right location and angle, a single camera can cover multiple entrances. An alternative is a camera that automatically sweeps back and forth; even better is one that could be remotely controlled, to focus on a particular entrance of interest.

When positioning and aiming any cameras, find adequate lighting at night, and avoiding glare from the sun, including that reflected off of a pool or a neighbor's window. Knowledgeable security analysts frequently advise people to choose black-and-white cameras over color ones, which do not perform as well in low-light conditions. They also point out the advantage of wired security systems, since they tend to be cheaper, more reliable, and immune to jamming by tech-savvy criminals. Furthermore, if someone is able to hack into your Wi-Fi network, then they can spy on you without your knowledge. It's bad enough with the government doing it now.

Then add lights that incorporate X-10 technology, which allows them to communicate with other devices. Lights and switches can be integrated with motion detectors, to come on automatically; this is especially effective outside a house and near fences, where bushes and other objects can block other light sources, providing shadows for burglars.

Your home security system can be as rudimentary as automated lights that come on at random times throughout the night, or when movement is detected. At the other end of the spectrum, your system could be quite sophisticated, with full perimeter security and Internet-accessible Web cameras. Regardless of what you choose, anything decent is better than nothing, as noted earlier; studies show that even better lighting greatly reduces your chances of being burglarized.

The computer running your home security system does not have to be very powerful. Even a rather old machine will do, unless you are intending for it to perform any processor-intensive tasks, such as voice recognition (of remote verbal commands) or multimedia. What is more important is that the hardware and software are reliable and stable. Another advantage to using an older machine is that the security devices for controlling sensors and lights, typically use serial ports. Nonetheless, more are switching to USB, and there are serial-to-USB adapters available.

A do-it-yourself (DIY) system often involves integrating the detectors into your home computer network. This allows a tremendous amount of flexibility and additional options in terms of recording and notification — more than what would be offered by a canned security system. However, the more sophisticated the capabilities that you desire, the more technically challenging it will be for you. Yet anyone with the smarts and technical experience to set up a home network and programmatically work with the output of the devices' software, should be able to complete a workable system.

There are countless articles and tutorials on the Web that provide the technical details for setting up all of the available security devices, and explain how to integrate them into your wired or Wi-Fi home network. Those details are beyond the scope of this article, but can be easily found using your favorite Internet search engine. Just be sure to check the legitimacy of the information before implementing it in your own home, and do not incorporate any code or website addresses that you are unable to verify as being completely safe. The last thing that you want to do is make it easier for local criminals to hack into your home security network.

A Plethora of Payoffs

There are advantages to home security systems beyond the protection of the people and property residing in the home. Alarm systems that are professionally set up and monitored can provide significant discounts in homeowners insurance premiums; the money saved is often greater than the cost of 24x7 monitoring. Unfortunately, this favorable treatment typically does not extend to do-it-yourself solutions — though this may change in the future as the built-in capabilities of security systems become more powerful and recognized as such.

The people whom you wish to monitor do not necessarily have to be unwanted intruders or other strangers. Perhaps you run a small business in an office away from your home, and you would like to monitor the employees and the area in back of the building. Or you and your spouse would like to be able to remotely check on your children and the babysitter, to make sure that everyone is behaving in your absence.

In addition to (probable) improved home security, you can also benefit from reduced electrical bills if you use the system to optimize heat and air conditioning, along with lighting only used when needed, made possible by the motion detectors.

These high-tech alarm and response systems can help to guard anyone's house or apartment, regardless of how menacing the local crime rate, or how humble the home. In order to secure one's "castle", one clearly does not have to set up an alligator-filled moat, a drawbridge, heavy iron gates, and archers in a tower (though it would ease decorating the place for Halloween).

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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