It’s easy to feel that we live in a surveillance state, with every public space seemingly monitored by government cameras, companies placing video cameras in stores and offices, and every other car owner sporting a dashboard cam. Why add yourself to that mix by putting video cameras in your home? Reasons abound for wanting to purchase home security cameras to monitor the environment in and around where you live, a vacation house, or another place you may rent or make available to others.
I recently finished writing Take Control of Home Security Cameras for Take Control Books, and in my research, I found that most people install video cameras for some overlapping reasons: maybe you’ve fallen victim to “porch pirates” and are fed up with packages being snatched from your porch. Or maybe you want to watch the hummingbirds feeding on your back deck. Perhaps you want to do a little bit of both, or just have a better sense of the coming and goings around your house.
Deter and Report Crime
Burglaries have dropped significantly around the globe in recent years. In many countries, fewer than half as many break-ins with intent to steal occurred per 100,000 residents in 2016—the most current year for such statistics—as in 2005. That includes the United States, whose rate dropped nearly in half even with a population growth of 11%, and places like the Netherlands, with 75% fewer burglaries among a stable population.
While property crime has plummeted, it’s certainly not down to zero. And you may live—as I do—in a pocket in a city that for whatever geographic, socioeconomic, or topographical reasons has a measurably higher property crime rate than the rest of your area.
That can be because your house or street is tucked out of the way, views are obscured, or your area is perceived as or is wealthier than regions around you, even if you’re not particularly wealthy yourself!
Whatever the reason, if one of your goals for installing a camera is to capture video (and audio), there are five things to consider:
- Deterrent: The presence of a camera may scare off potential thieves or miscreants from engaging in crime in the first place.
- Alerts and alarms: If someone appears outside or inside your home, you want to be alerted to their presence and be able to see what’s going on so you can take action, like calling the police, or have an automatic action occur, like floodlights turning on and a siren going off. With some systems, events can even trigger a monitoring service that examines live video (with your advance permission) and calls police or dispatches a paid security guard service.
- Video for criminal charges: If a crime is committed in or near your home, your cameras may have captured it, and it may be valuable in finding perpetrators or getting a conviction. (There are issues about admissibility I get into later in the article.)
- Video for civil lawsuits: If someone vandalizes your property, steals from you, or otherwise causes damage, video can be an effective tool in a lawsuit to recover money or obtain other relief.
- Monitoring crime in the area: You may be in an area with enough general lawlessness that you use a camera to help as part of neighborhood efforts, such as monitoring for car thefts or break-ins at other houses. You might also want to make your video readily available to other neighbors and the police.
For each of these goals, the kinds of camera specs you need are reasonably straightforward:
- 1080p, 2K, or 4K recording: Modern cameras typically offer 720p or 1080p as an option, and some higher-end models can record in 2K or even 4K. Higher resolution means more detail and clarity. The difference between 720p and 4K could mean the difference between seeing a person with a beard and being able to identify them.
- Outdoor focused: Cameras are made to withstand indoor or outdoor conditions, and you typically want an outdoor battery-powered model that connects wirelessly, that is highly water-resistant, and that you can place in a mount far out of reach (and maybe out of view) of a potential lurker. This prevents the camera from being knocked down or someone cutting its network connectivity, power, or both. (Water resistance is rated by Ingress Protection or IP level, and you want IP65 or IP66 to keep someone from disabling your camera by spraying water at it.)
- Night vision: Most camera models feature infrared LEDs to illuminate indoor and outdoor scenes. However, because crimes often occur with low or no lighting, you might opt for a camera that requires a power source instead of a battery to allow for higher-intensity infrared LEDs and a more sensitive image capture sensor. (Infrared LEDs don’t work on the inside of a window looking out—they reflect off the glass.)
- System integration: Most cameras offer smartphone or other alerts when triggers set off recording, such as motion or a camera being unplugged. If you’re concerned about a break-in or other actions, you likely want a camera tied into an alarm system that can trigger a siren, call a monitoring company, and turn on floodlights.
- Full capture: This is a more niche need, but if you have constant problems with crime, you may want to retain a continuous video feed for an extended period. In this case, you may need to purchase an integrated multi-camera system that includes or supports a network video recorder that can record days or weeks of video to a local hard drive. However, some cloud-connected cameras offer continuous recording, too, and the price is falling. Google is rolling out a revised storage plan for its Nest cameras that covers all the cameras in a home for just $12 per month for 10 days of continuous footage and 60 days of motion-triggered clips.
- Storage: Because you may not discover a crime has occurred until well afterward, you almost certainly want long-term storage of motion clips. Many cameras include some free clip storage, often the last day’s worth, but offer paid subscriptions that include 7, 30, or 60 days of motion-triggered clip storage. Amazon’s Blink cameras uniquely include 2 hours of clip storage (from 5 to 60 seconds each) that remain available as long as you want. You can also opt for a camera that stores clips on a memory card.
- Third-party access: Some systems let you share video directly with law-enforcement officers or provide it to neighbors who can then choose what to do with it. If this is an ongoing concern, consider that factor when deciding which camera you purchase. Ring offers such features, but they’re controversial (see “Amazon Using Police Departments to Sell Ring Cameras,” 29 July 2019, and I devote a section of the book to it, too).
Use Video to Prove a Crime
You might want to record video to use as evidence of a crime. But can that video be used to charge someone or be introduced in a trial? (Let me note: I am not a lawyer and this does not constitute legal advice.)
For people without permission to be on your property or inside your home, the answer generally appears to be yes. However, police have to follow an investigative process in obtaining the video from you, documenting a camera’s position, and making sure they can prove the date and time and location of the recording.
Merely emailing a video to the police won’t work as evidence in court! In fact, if the police rely on video without following the rules, that could lead to any other evidence they collect based on that video being thrown out—the so-called fruit of the poisoned tree.
Defense attorneys may be able to block a video on many grounds or destroy its credibility if all the niceties aren’t followed. For instance, if a camera’s clock is set incorrectly and the timestamp on the video is inaccurate, that casts doubt on the veracity of its recordings.
However, an increasing number of cases rely on video recorded by someone of a crime against them or their property, or on video given by neighbors, offered by nearby businesses, or subpoenaed by police.
If you have video evidence of a crime involving someone you invited into your home, like a babysitter or plumber, and your cameras are hidden, not every state or judge will admit the evidence, as guests may have an expectation of privacy, regardless of their behavior. (It’s a little like the “you invited the vampire in” rule of mythology.)
Defendants, by the way, are often allowed more leeway to introduce into evidence video that might exonerate them, as the balance of power in a criminal proceeding favors defendants providing evidence that casts doubt.
Keep Track of Comings and Goings
While camera vendors emphasize security in their marketing pitches, personally controlled cameras on your property can meet many more needs than deterring or recording burglaries. This includes many distinct activities, all of which have privacy, security, and safety considerations:
- Know when packages are delivered, so you or a neighbor can retrieve them before someone else steals them. Some camera software even recognizes a package delivery versus other kinds of people arriving at your front door.
- Get a remote face check that you can use to admit a contractor or delivery person.
- Confirm that a child has left the house or arrived home. Smartphones help with this, too, but not all children have one (shocking, I know).
- Monitor an infant in its room.
- Monitor or communicate with a babysitter or nanny.
- Capture footage of birds and wildlife. This may be for appreciation, like a hummingbird cam, or out of concern. In some areas, homeowners have to monitor for animals they view as pests—munchers of vegetables or potential spreaders of disease—like rabbits, deer, rodents, and other small animals. You might also need to beware of predators like mountain lions, cougars, and bears—oh my!—or alligators, coyotes, and wolves, depending on where you live.
- Capture people letting their dogs poop on your lawn and not picking it up. Seriously, I imagine that’s a top-ten, if not top-five purpose.
There’s no single camera model that’s perfect for all these purposes. But there are four general considerations that overlap:
- Need to greet someone at the door: To this end, you almost always want a doorbell cam with a button visitors can press. The camera may provide facial recognition, which can even be used to unlock the door for known parties if also paired with a smart lock. These doorbell cameras or front-door cameras always post an alert on your smartphone or another device when they see a face, allow two-way audio communication, and show (often with a fish-eye lens) the entire area around the door.
- Need to monitor what’s happening inside your house: This kind of monitoring can be creepy, but in the appropriate situation, it can be helpful or even provide necessary oversight. If you have employees (like a nanny) or contractors in your house routinely, you may want a camera both to tune in live or to review video if something does something wrong and tries to hide it. (They may want it, too, to prove they didn’t do anything wrong.) The presence of a camera might deter improper actions, too. A wide array of indoor models meet this need. Some cameras can even detect the distinctive tones of a smoke or carbon monoxide detector and alert you that it has gone off.
- Need to monitor goings-on in front of your house: For contractor work, the coming and going of people to a porch, and even checking up on kids playing in the front lawn, you want either an outdoor battery-powered camera—possibly with a solar panel to avoid having to recharge the battery—mounted in a position that is hard to get at; or an indoor camera mounted directly onto a window.
- Need to communicate with people inside your house: Most indoor cameras include two-way audio, like an intercom. Check the specs on cameras to make sure the feature is present and read reviews to learn how well it works. Reviewers often focus attention on this feature.
What We Don’t See
A home security camera won’t magically solve problems, especially when petty crime is involved. What these cameras typically offer is insight: a better sense of what’s happening when you’re not looking and information about whether things happened as you expected—a contractor built a fence, a kid came home from school late, or someone stole your mail just minutes after mail carrier delivered it.
These little bits of knowledge can help you better shape your day, worry less about your surroundings, and, yes, have evidence when things go awry.
Looking to learn more about Apple’s new HomeKit Secure Video storage? It’s a developer-level option that lets camera makers tie their devices in with Apple’s HomeKit home automation system. To avoid concerns about sensitive video falling into the wrong hands, HomeKit Secure Video encrypts all recordings end-to-end from your devices and stores them encrypted on iCloud servers—just like iCloud Keychain—so that nobody but you can view them. I cover HomeKit Secure Video in Take Control of Home Security Cameras, but if you’d like to know more about it, let us know in the comments, and I’ll write an article about how it works with some of the first cameras that support it.