Webcams: A Tool for Security or Spying?Michelle V. Rafter
When Heather Cook enrolled her 18-month-old daughter in full-time daycare recently, the Calgary, Alberta sales manager gladly paid $10 extra a month to monitor her tot over the facility’s in-house Web-based cameras, or Webcams. Cook normally checks on her daughter a couple times a day from an Internet browser on her work computer and loves it. “I see if she’s having fun, if they’re in circle time or dancing. It’s important for my peace of mind,” Cook says.
Gone are the days when people used Webcams primarily for video phone calls to far-flung relatives or making home-made movies to upload onto the Web. Like Cook, more families are using Webcams from work and home as modern-day security blankets, to make sure their children, homes, property -- even pets -- stay safe and sound.
Webcams have become commonplace thanks to better hardware and software, falling prices and the fact that the technology comes standard on some new, high-end laptop models. Expect those trends to continue into the foreseeable future. According to a 2007 report from WinterGreen Research, a British technology market researcher, worldwide sales of Webcams should climb from $1.2 billion in 2006 to $6.2 billion by 2013. At an average of $30 to $120 a pop for a stand-alone unit, that’s a lot of Webcams.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, society has grown accustomed to surveillance cameras everywhere -- from airports to ATMs to ski slopes. Cities such as Calgary and Portland, Ore., have installed them in intersections to catch speeders and motorists who roll through red lights. Communities like Woodbridge, N. J., also put them in public parks so parents can see if their kids are safe -- and whether they’re really where they say they’re going to be.
It follows that people should be more comfortable using Webcams at home for security reasons, says Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based security expert and author of The Safety Minute (Safety Zone Pr). “We’re better off being in a surveillance society to keep those with nefarious purposes in check,” Siciliano says. “It can and does prevent bad things from happening, or at least [help] catch the bad guy after the fact to prevent it from happening again.”
But is there a dividing line between using Webcams for security and spying? Not everyone agrees on the necessity or the appropriateness of 24/7 surveillance. Teenagers don’t exactly appreciate Mom or Dad snooping in their room through the lens of a video camera. Employees balk at having their every utterance and action recorded. Private citizens don’t always welcome being caught on public Webcams, whether they’re innocently pushing their kids on a park swing or surreptitiously rifling through trash cans for recyclables.
Too bad, says Siciliano. Installing a Webcam on your home PC to monitor the nanny while you’re at work is no different from logging onto a Webcam maintained by a daycare facility, he says. The same holds true for a Webcam connected to a home PC used to monitor a house or pet sitter while you’re on vacation. Ditto for checking on teenagers who are home alone. “I’m a big believer in spying on everyone I’m responsible for, or giving responsibility to,” Siciliano says. “Employers can monitor every keystroke of their employees all day long. You’re entitled to the exact same thing at home.”
Thanks to technological advances, the picture quality on newer model Webcams is far superior to that of older versions. For example, three high-end devices from Logitech, a leading Webcam maker, record images at 30 frames per second and are compatible with most popular video messaging software as well as Skype, the Internet phone service. Webcam pictures can be enlarged to fill up an entire computer screen without getting blurry, says company spokeswoman Ha Thai.
Webcam Security Prep Steps
Before setting up a Webcam for security purposes, families should take steps to make sure the desktop or laptop computer they’ll be using is safe. That includes:
- Use passwords
Parents should use double passwords so kids or visitors can’t access Webcam controls. According to Siciliano, the security expert, that means setting up Webcam hardware on a computer with a password-protected login that only parents know, and using the password protection that comes with Webcam software.
- Protect machines from virtual intruders
Criminal hackers can take control of a Webcam connected to a home PC that’s not protected by anti-virus software, according to news reports. To prevent such an incident, computers should be covered by Internet security software with firewall and anti-virus programs, as well as programs that can remove spyware. Households that have multiple computers running on a wireless networks should make sure security software covers those networks too.
- Keep operating system software current
Get into the habit of downloading security patches for your computer’s operating system software -- or set up automatic downloads on a regular basis -- so the machine is protected against new security threats.
Back in Calgary, Heather Cook thinks so highly of her daycare provider’s Webcam arrangement that she’s considering installing a Webcam on her home computer. Initially she’d use it to shoot videos for her second career as a blogger writing about mothers who are freelance writers. But if the day comes that she and her husband have a third child and hire a nanny, she’d definitely use it to keep tabs on what goes on at home while she’s a work. Says Cook: “I would feel comfortable telling someone we have a Webcam without worrying that they’d think we were checking up on them.”
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