Can Somebody Hack my Electronic Lock?

The short answer is: yes, there are ways to unlock your electronic lock but you probably have nothing to worry about; the people with the knowledge to do so most likely have bigger fish to fry.

To protect against unauthorized entry we must consider motivations for the would-be intruder. The most obvious one is theft. Another possibility is squatters: if they get the code they can argue they legally live there and legally you have to prove that they don’t have permission to be there. It might be six months or more before the cops will remove them. We’re over a year now during the pandemic with no legal evictions outside of unusual circumstances. In that time squatters will probably total your residence.
One must also consider the terrible possibility not of what might be taken but what might be left. There are publicized cases of people being framed for possession of child pornography for example. All one need do is gain access to a person’s house or office with a usb device loaded with child porn and load it on their computer. Even if the computer is password protected, with physical access it isn’t difficult for somebody with arcane knowledge to put the files on a locked computer. Then they just call the FBI to report it and boom, your life is ruined. That’s worse than anything a burglar could steal. They’ve essentially stolen your life at that point.

But how do these villains gain access in the first place? Let us consider some of the ways one could gain unauthorized access. The low tech way would be to watch you put in the code. Then they have the code!

The high tech way to get in would be to reverse engineer the lock to find hardwired codes or other vulnerabilities that are common to all locks of the same model. There are people attempting to do this. Other methods might include man in the middle attacks that detect the communication between your phone and the lock or your zwave controller and the lock.

  1. The guy in the bushes

A lot of locks have a code that needs to be punched in to unlock. That is an issue if somebody is watching you put the code in! Think about whether or not somebody could see you put the code in from behind a tree or a bush.

Now that electronic devices are cheap and prevalent there is another danger that I must admit I’m a bit afraid to even utter for fear that I will let an evil out of Pandora’s box that can’t be put back in: small videorecording devices that can be put somewhere near a person’s door could record 24 hours of video on a small microsd card and if properly placed could record somebody punching in their code. When you put your code in, cover your hand with your body and your other hand.

A bit more money and they could have access to telescopic lenses. In the city there are possibly many windows facing your door and one of them might have a recording device with a telephoto lens aimed at your door. That is why you must cover your hand when you put in your entry code. Now people can buy drones that hover in one place for hours at a time from hundreds of feet up in the air with telephoto lenses, all for less than $1500.

Then think of the ways somebody could see what keys you had pressed on your keypad. Your fingers leave oils that are visible under different kinds of light. One can also leave an invisible dye on the doorknob which would then be spread on the keypad. If you have a 4 digit code there might be 16 combinations to try. At this point I should give credit to Yale. They change the location of digits on the keypad every time it is activated. This spreads oils around the keypad. It also means somebody with a telescope won’t necessarily be able to figure out the code by watching you enter it. If they don’t see the number being entered but just what part of the keypad you are touching they won’t get the code. This is a brilliant innovation.

There are other methods of more interest to movie studios and government actors. The methods used to authenticate are getting more complicated and with more complication come more possibilities for exploits. Zwave and Bluetooth implementations aren’t always done securely. Many software engineers have told me they refuse to have electronic locks installed because they’ve seen the codebases for different hardware devices and all of the shoddy code on them.

Keyless lock lockouts: how to prevent and get back inside

There are lots of ways to get locked out with an electronic lock. The most common reasons are that there is a keyed lock elsewhere on the door that is locked, or the electronic lock’s battery died. If you are having this problem figure out which lock isn’t working by sliding a card between the door and frame next to the locks. If the card won’t slide past one chances are it is your problem lock. Read on for some ways to get around these malfunctioning locks.

Not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t call me because they are locked out for one of these reasons. I show up and there is an electronic deadbolt on the door and a door knob below it. The hapless customer explains that their friend or relative locked the doorknob when they left. You can’t blame the friend in this circumstance. Maybe they have the same doorknob at home and are used to locking the door this way. Maybe an older family member doesn’t understand or trust electronic locks. In both cases the person is trying to help you by locking the door. They don’t want you to get burgled!

This situation comes down to being the homeowner’s fault. If you don’t want people to lock the doorknob, you shouldn’t have a locking doorknob. This is one of those Murphy’s Law situations: if something bad can happen, it will happen.

If I see a door with this problematic configuration I always warn the occupant of the dangers. Often it simply hasn’t occurred to them that a keyless lock on the same door as a keyed lock inevitably means the keyed lock will be used some day. Sometimes the person insists that it’s fine because they put tape on the thumbturn or they told everybody not to lock the knob. They like having a second lock on the door despite it not offering much security against people kicking or prying the door open, also known as false security.

This was the case today, my customer had me replace a lock that some idiot had drilled out. The lock could have been bypassed with any type of card and any decent locksmith would have picked the lock or at least used a bumpkey. Instead of replacing the drilled out lock with a passage lock, they asked for the exact same lock. Thus setting themselves up for another costly mistake in the future.

Solutions to this problem are simple. The easiest thing to do is often replacing the locking lockset with a nonlocking or passage lockset. A passage knob or lever will only cost $10-50 at a big box store although a passage mortise lock might cost hundreds more. The cheapest solution aside from hiding a spare key nearby is to modify the lockset to no longer lock. For Kwikset knobs and levers one can simply remove the spindle. This is a nice solution because it is reversible. You can put the spindle back in and it will lock again. Schlage residential locks and the inexpensive locks found at big box stores can usually have the spindle clipped off with a hacksaw or other metal cutting instruments. Then if somebody attempts to lock the knob the thumbturn will spin around without doing anything at all. This is not reversible but at least you don’t have to buy a new lock and from the street the door will appear to have two locks on it still. Make sure to break a key off in the keyhole, otherwise somebody can accidentally lock the knob with a key and you’ll get locked out the next time you use the door. If you have an antique mortise lock on the same door ask me about converting it to passage only.

The third solution is to remove the latch and install a ball catch in its place. This is nice because it’s cheaper than a knob, makes getting locked out (nearly) impossible, and the knob will feel locked if a burglar tries it.

You can also hide a key to the lower lock somewhere, though I urge you not to do so in your own yard as drug addicts and others drowning in desperation have been known to search people’s yards for keys and they know all the best spots including under the flower pot, over the door frame, and the fake rock or sprinkler head. Even key safes aren’t safe. Criminals have made an art of breaking into Masterlock keysafes in particular. Better to hide the key at least 500 yards away in a few different directions. This minimizes the chances that if somebody finds the key they will discover where it goes and you have backups if they do find a key.

Hiding a key is a bit silly though if you have a keyless lock. The convenience of not needing keys is why you got one in the first place. You are better off making sure that the only lock on the door is the electronic one and making it impossible for well-intentioned people to lock you out.

If you are in any of these situations try using a card to unlock the lower lock before calling me. Deadlatches and springlatches when installed on doors with foam weatherstripping are often easy to bypass with a gift card or a piece of celluloid. It could save you $80-150.00! Probably 1/3 of the people I suggest this to are able to get in on their own.

Maybe there is a different problem causing the lockout. People will swear up and down that their keyless lock isn’t working but a passage handleset can sometimes malfunction and not work even when you turn the handle or push the thumblatch down. The card trick can often work in this instance as well but sometimes malfunctioning locks need to be drilled out. The card can be used to determine which lock is malfunctioning by trying to unlock the deadbolt first and then turn the knob all the way in one direction. Then slide your card past both and see at which one it stops. That is your problem lock.

If the electronic lock itself is malfunctioning or the batteries are dead it may be possible to open it with a key override. Many of these locks come with a key. Hope you entrusted a copy to somebody who lives in town. Some of these locks have a battery override on the outside of the lock. This is for a 9 volt battery. If you left one somewhere outside the house or can get one from a neighbor then you’re golden. Get one out of a smoke detector.

When keyless locks aren’t lined up correctly with the strike plate on the door frame they can malfunction. This is often due to excessive friction between the bolt or latch and the strike plate. This can sometimes be alleviated by pushing, pulling, lifting or otherwise manipulating the door into a more optimum position for the lock to work. This has worked for me many times to resolve lockout situations. The culprit is often a sagging or swelling or warping door but can sometimes be the result of the house settling. Whenever there is a minor earthquake you can be sure that the next day people will call to report that their door is stuck or their lock is broken. The lock is fine, it’s no longer working because it’s jammed against wood and metal with great force.

The cheap fix for a lock out of alignment is to adjust the strike plate by either moving it or grinding it. There are benefits to both. If the door has swelled or isn’t hanging correctly you have bigger problems though you might solve them with a plane or a belt sander. Be careful, it’s a game of 1/16″ at a time. If you do it wrong you will be looking at sunlight coming in around your door.

I have had one customer in eight years who forgot her lock’s code. She gave me what she thought was her working code but the lock told me that it was not. After proving to me it was her house I unlocked the door. A few minutes and $120 later she slapped her forehead and revealed that she forgot she changed the code. When we tried the code she had just remembered it worked. She had been very certain that the lock just stopped taking her code and vowed to raise holy hell with the manufacturer right up until her mouth opened and forehead wrinkled with the painful realization of her mistake.

This is becoming a book, thank you for letting me share my musings with you. I must condense this in the future, this is probably too much to ask someone who is locked out to absorb. I hope that it helps somebody out there.

Hacks: Stop Using Incorrect Mortise Lock Spindles Please!

Two days and two people locked inside because somebody halfassed the replacement of the knob spindle on a mortise lock.

Yesterday I had a customer who wanted to show a condo but people kept getting stuck inside the unit after they shut the door. This wasn’t a strong selling point. To get out somebody had to crawl out the window and unlock the door from the outside with a key. Fortunately they were on the ground floor! It was all due to somebody replacing the original spindle with a straight spindle instead of a swivel spindle.

This is a straight shaft spindle with a wad of tape around it to make it work in a lock with a larger diameter for the hub. It was responsible for locking a poor lady and her dog inside for a long time.

Today I encountered the exact same scenario on Capitol Hill! A lady got locked inside her unit. When I pulled the lock apart I discovered somebody used a straight spindle wrapped with about half a roll of electrical tape to make up for the spindle being the wrong diameter. It works for awhile but a few years down the road there’s a real headscratcher to contend with that could be avoided with an inexpensive part.

Entry function mortise locks typically have buttons on the side to facilitate locking the knob on the outside. Due to fire codes (and plain common sense) the inside knob should always be unlocked, and to make this work you have to allow the inside knob to rotate independently of the outside knob, meaning there must be a swivel in the middle of the knob spindle.

If somebody replaces that spindle or if they adjust the placement of the spindle so the swivel is no longer in the middle of the lock, the knobs can no longer rotate independently. They are connected on a straight shaft. If somebody then pushes the lock button on the side of the door and shuts it they will be locked inside.

Here are some Ilco spindles. 760-07 and 12 are swivel spindles. 760-11 are split spindles.

Ilco manufactures a number of different replacement spindles for mortise locks including swivel spindles that come with little expansion things that slide on over the spindle which negates the need for toothpicks or electrical tape or dental floss or whatever else is revealed to the handyman’s mind in his “a-ha moment” of realization that he needs a larger diameter spindle and maybe wrapping random household objects around it will fix it.

When replacing parts on locks it is important that the function of the lock is considered and possible failures anticipated. A lock malfunction during a fire or gas leak for example could result in unnecessary injury or death. Electrical tape and wood glue aren’t durable enough for use in can’t-fail applications like the only door to a rental unit.

Other problems encountered with the lady’s door: an auxiliary deadbolt was installed upside down with the boltlatch surface mounted instead of mortised in. There was no strike plate installed, just a hole in the wall.

When you don’t mortise the boltlatch in it will scrape on the doorframe and when the screws on the strike loosen it might prevent the door from opening at all. The silly thing is that this deadbolt came with a drive-in part that is used when mortising is not desired. There’s no excuse!
Strike plates distribute the force of somebody kicking the door over a wider amount of wood, thus making it harder to kick the door in. This deadbolt came with a very good strike plate, the maintenance guy just didn’t bother with installing it.

When Shoddy Work Causes Break-ins

Today I went out to fix a lock after somebody broke in over the night. The owner thought they used lockpicks after watching the security camera video but the telltale signs of somebody using a wrench were on the lock cylinder and its housing. Whenever somebody can put a wrench on the physical lock cylinder it is a bad thing. It means that they might be able to either manipulate the lock or remove the lock cylinder entirely by rotating it with a wrench. That is why it was surprising to me that this lock featured this deficiency. Rim cylinders are particularly susceptible to this problem. Rotate them less than a quarter turn and the door will probably open.

This lock cylinder should not be sticking out beyond the brown housing. This is either ignorance or particularly malicious laziness at work. Also they make lock cylinders in the dark brown color. It’s as if the installer took pride in their shoddy work and wanted to call attention to it by deliberately using the wrong finish. However we shouldn’t assume malice where sheer idiocy will adequately explain things.

A number of errors were revealed while taking the old lock cylinder out to replace. The first and most obvious error I encountered was that one of the two through bolts were missing from the lock. This means that somebody might pry the entire housing off of the door. How lazy do you have to be not to screw a Philips head screw back in? I suspect only one screw was put back in because that is the bare minimum required to keep the lock from falling off the door. If they could’ve reattached the lock with no screws I wonder if they would have?

The second error I noticed was that this Schlage lock is designed to have the lock cylinder recessed in the housing. If the person who installed this lock cylinder knew anything at all about security they would not have installed this lock cylinder protruding from the housing so that somebody could grab it with a wrench. I replaced this lock cylinder and after doing so the cylinder face is flush with the lock housing the way the housing is designed.

The lock housing doesn’t require a cylinder protector but if it did the one on the left is a more appropriate choice. The one on the right should only be used on the interior side of doors where people won’t use a wrench to break in.

The third issue that beggars belief is why did the person who installed this cylinder use a chrome Kwikset cylinder? This entire building has oil rubbed bronze hardware with expensive Schlage removable cores. Not disparaging Kwikset but when I replaced the cylinder the owner had me key it to a nice 6 pin Schlage key. Why didn’t the last guy do that? Any competent locksmith will have Schlage rim cylinders in multiple finishes in their van. Whoever installed it probably had only this one rolling around in the back of their Toyota Camry.

Not only did this person’s work look terrible but it practically invited and resulted in a burglary. If you need somebody to work on your locks for the sake of Pete don’t call the first rando off of Google to help you. Their help may end up costing you so much more in the longterm than their substandard work does initially. There are a lot of good locksmiths in Seattle and if I am too busy to help you I have a good list of competent locksmiths to refer you to. I have the phone numbers of several locksmiths memorized I refer them so much, I’d rather they get the work than I encounter silliness like this clown world locksmithery.

Cylinder installed correctly, flush with the housing. Bonus: Same finish as housing!

Masterlock Keysafe Weaknesses

I see this happen several times a year. Criminals have figured out how to break into these keysafes. When they do, the building must be rekeyed. Often this is done at night at greater expense to prevent the criminal coming back with the key to do more harm.

Careful with the key safes. If you cheap out you could end up spending a lot more if somebody busts it open and gets the key out. A good one costs close to $100 which is much less than it costs to have a locksmith come out and rekey a building with numerous keyed entries.

The Supra S7 is a more appropriate choice, especially when throughbolted on the wall. Use some cheap little woodscrews and the box will easily be pried off the wall like the one in the picure above, which was attached with a few short woodscrews.

How to address “sticky” mortise lock knobs

One of the problems endemic to people with houses more than 100 years old is inevitably the sticky mortise lock knob. This is probably a lock on an original door with a crystal glass knob but it could also be brass. When you turn the knob the latch doesn’t spring back out. There are a lot of possible reasons for this and I have pontificated at great length elsewhere online about this but I am going to explain the most common problems and solutions right here.

First I will list the problems that can be fixed without taking the lock apart. Number one problem is people overtightening the knob because nobody likes door hardware that feels flimsy, it seems natural that the knob shouldn’t wobble around on the door. Usually these knobs are screwed onto a spindle. You screw the knob on and then tighten a set screw at the base of the knob to hold it in place. You or your family may have inadvertently overtightened your knob when this set screw loosened, allowing the knob to turn independently of the spindle. Sometimes people spin the knob the other way and it loosens. Then the door doesn’t open and they call me in a panic.

This problem can be solved by screwing the knob onto the spindle only tight enough that the latch still springs back when the knob is released. If you tighten the knob more than that, the friction of the base of the knob against the rose (plate on surface of door) will be greater than the force of the spring inside the lock and the latch won’t come back out. (I never thought I’d use anything from honors physics. Thanks Mr. Elder, you are a peach!)

Once you have found that optimal sweet spot for your knob then tighten the set screw. If you are a type a personality and want to do the job right/don’t want to ever think about this again, buy something called threadlocker in the blue color and put a small dab on the set screw before screwing it in. This prevents the screw from backing out and loosening which may be what got you into this mess in the first place.

Ok so that covers the most common and easiest fix. That eliminates maybe 75% of you. On to the next most likely problem: alignment of the spindle within the lock. We have already examined the problem of friction between the knob and the rose, or “base plate” for those not familiar with door hardware terms. Other variables can cause excessive friction or wobbling in your lock too. The two main problems here are overtightening of the screws holding the mortise lock in place and misalignment of the rose or base plate on the door.

The mortise lock when installed should have the hub centered perfectly in the door between the two holes in the metal plates on either side of the door. If your door has no metal plates then that is a problem. Originally there probably were plates but some helpful person decided they were unnecessary and, well, here you are! Turns out they are necessary to support the knob and keep it from wobbling around.

Back to lining up the holes. If you look through the holes in those plates on your door, it should be a straight unobstructed hole through the lock. If it is not then you need to take some cardboard or something and put it behind the lock when you screw it in. You need to make it so that when the screws are tight, the lock’s hub is centered with those holes. The idea is that the spindle will spin without rubbing against anything.

Maybe the lock isn’t the issue though. Maybe the roses are too high or too low. Maybe they aren’t screwed into the door at all! Many times when people call me to look at these locks I take the rose off the door and find a perfect circle of little holes drilled into the wood at intervals because over time the holes got stripped and people rotated the screw holes on the rose for fresh wood. After 100 years of handymen and weekend projects, there isn’t any fresh wood left! Then it is time for either a different rose, plastic wood filler, or an entirely different solution like rivnuts or some other esoteric fastener.

Sorry I got off on a tangent. The main idea we’re on is making sure the roses are installed in the right spot. A lot of times they aren’t. To find out where they should be installed I like to take all the screws out of the rose and then tighten the knobs so that they are snug; don’t overtighten or you may distort the shape of the rose which brings us back to one of the earlier troubleshooting steps.

Once the knobs are snug and assuming the door is perfectly flat and free of paint ridges that the roses might slide into, we can assume that the roses are optimally placed. The screwholes may not line up with where they were originally and there may be a different color of paint showing. Unfortunately there is a decision to be made: will your antique lock work properly or will your door have some unsightly paint from yesteryear peering out? If you choose to have a properly functioning lock, stick a sharp object into the screw holes to mark where you need to put the screws.

Now you remove the knobs and drill pilot holes. These holes need to be smaller than the screw and they shouldn’t go into the body of the lock. I know that one is the very definition of a pilot hole and the other is also obvious but I’ve seen some stuff, okay? Make sure that the screws aren’t longer than the hole they are going into. These screws are usually really short which is why the holes always get stripped out. Ace Hardware has a great screw selection and even have antique brass and oil rubbed bronze finish wood screws in the appropriate sizes. I like the Maple Leaf Ace Hardware for my fastener needs.

We have now covered the easy fixes. On to the harder ones.

Sometimes knobs and/or spindles have stripped threads. This causes overly muscular or determined people to turn the knob past where it is necessary to open the door, and can also overtighten the knob. The solution, aside from removing caffeine/television/twitter and other stressors from your housemates’ lives, is to replace the knob and/or spindle. I mentioned Ace Hardware a little bit earlier. They also sell mortise lock knobs and spindles. These work in most interior mortise locks. They probably are inappropriate for exterior mortise locks and may cause a big problem if used instead of a split spindle.

The Ilco mortise knob set comes in either glass or brass finish. The brass one is made either of a very weak metal or plastic, I’m not sure which. The glass one may also be made of plastic. There are more expensive options but nobody wants to spend $120 on one of these doorknobs. If somebody does I have some actual crystal glass doorknobs to sell you, new.

Follow me into the weeds and we discuss opening the mortise lock. There are lots of reasons inside an old lock that the latch might not spring out. The latch might be bent from abuse, there may be some foreign object or broken spring blocking it, there may be paint on it because painters frequently don’t bother to tape off locks and just paint right over them causing the bolt to stop working unless you pay me to take it apart and clean it.

There may also be a broken spring. People are forever mailing me locks with broken springs. The two most common kinds of spring are the coil spring which wraps around the latch and the flat spring which either directly forces the latch back out or acts on a lever of some kind at the top of the lock connected to the latch.

The coil springs are stocked at Ace Hardware. The flat springs are used by gunsmiths. They can also be taken out of old windshield wipers or street sweeper blades found in parking lots if you want to fix it on the cheap. Usually the shape of the spring can be determined from looking at the broken pieces of spring inside the lock. Oftentimes these are missing after some enterprising individual from the past removed them when trying to fix the lock. You may find a bent paperclip or rubber band in its place if you’re lucky. In this case either deduce the shape from the features of the lock or mail it to me.

I hope that this information helps you fix your lock. Many of you are spending more time at home due to the Covid 19 pandemic, drop me a line with comments related to this and I may update it in the future.

Do you really need a locksmith?

There are a few situations I kind of wish people wouldn’t call me out on. Not because I don’t want the money. More because people could do the job easily themselves. Of course there are two groups of customers, those who have the time to do it themselves and those who don’t.

Before calling me to rekey your house check to see if you have Kwikset Smartkey locks installed. These are really easy to rekey yourself and though they do fail occasionally during the rekey process, they usually don’t. All you need is a smartkey tool and a Kwikset key that is different from your current key. It should be factory original. They have buckets of these at Home Depot and will sell them to you. You may have problems if your key does not say “Kwikset” on it. If you don’t have the tool, you can actually use almost anything that is stiff and will fit in the little slot next to the keyhole on the face of the Kwikset smartkey lock cylinder.

I don’t mind doing the work for those who don’t have the time. I feel bad doing the work for people who are just scared to try though. Let’s look at the cost benefit analysis for calling me out versus having a new knob shipped to your door.

I charge $75 to come out to your house if you live nearby. This is much higher than somebody who delivers groceries or take-out, but lower than some trades like plumbers. If you just want to rekey one lock on your door, consider the cost of just replacing that lock. This is a viable option if your house or apartment is of modern construction. Townhouses fall into this category. Usually only a Philips screwdriver is required to remove or install a lock in these houses though Allen wrenches and flathead screwdrivers may be required if more decorative or import locks are installed by the builders.

A new Schlage F51a knob is running $26 plus tax and shipping. A Schlage deadbolt and doorknob already keyed alike costs $47.97 plus tax and shipping. If you paid me to come out and install that one knob I would charge $20 per lock*, bringing my total to $95 to install just a knob or $115 to install a knob and deadbolt*.

*This cost assumes doors are already prepped for tubular locks. If not then more labor and thus higher costs are required.

In our hypothetical situation of changing one doorknob to a new key the cheapest solution is definitely replacement. If you have the time and bring me the knob with a working key I only charge $15 to rekey it so that is the absolute cheapest you can do without rekeying the lock yourself, though that would necessitate obtaining either pre cut keys or blank keys that you file down and either re-using the pins in your lock or obtaining new pins.

Why can’t you just replace it?

This is a custom door prep that will only work for a Kwikset doorknob. Also lazy painters made it so that you have to screw the lock in exactly where it was to cover up unpainted areas. Hopefully that position is the correct one for ideal functioning of the lock!

When people call me about replacing a lock, inevitably we start talking prices. One of the variables I spend more time explaining is whether or not the door is prepped correctly. If a door is prepped for a modern tubular lock it must have a 2 and 1/8″ cross bore and a 1/8″ side bore.

In the old days people didn’t have access to inexpensive electric drills or were too cheap to buy the correct auger bit to drill 2 and 1/8″ holes. They reasoned, why don’t I use the 1/4″ bit I have and only drill out those holes that are strictly necessary? Sometimes they didn’t even drill holes, sometimes they chiseled the hole. The lock they bought at Home Depot requires a nice round 2 and 1/8″ hole though and that means I have to drill the hole.

That requires equipment, it makes a mess and it takes time. That’s why I charge $10-55 labor to install a replacement lock in labor alone. $10 is the cost if I can install the lock without modifying the door at all. This is a low price because you could do it yourself with only a hand screwdriver and 5 or 10 minutes.

You could also do the work if you buy a jig from the big box store and some hole saws. Measure twice and cut once though, the guy who installed the last one might not have centered the side bore on the cross bore. Don’t mess up your door by drilling in the wrong spot.

The Problem with Consumer Grade Security Cameras

My humble blog has become a security resource for DIY-minded folks so I thought it might be helpful to let those of you interested in security cameras avoid the same pitfalls that I have with inferior products. Short version: beware of cameras that don’t let you automatically save all footage locally to a computer and make you download an app to a phone.

Through a mixture of curiosity and being asked to do so by customers I’ve been knee-deep a few times with different surveillance hardware and software. Once, a national service provider assured me that he could tell me how to replace some security cameras in a national chain restaurant so I learned all about how to hook up sdi cables from cameras to dvr’s. I’ve also purchased several cameras for my own surveillance needs. None of the consumer grade cameras have really passed muster for me.

Arlo Pro 2


  • No cables required, clever motion detection enables batteries to last for months between charges.
  • Cloud storage prevents people breaking in from stealing the evidence*(Cloud storage is not offered for free for newer versions of the Arlo camera which is the main selling point in my opinion)
  • Inexpensive*(If the batteries kept working for ~ten years this system would be inexpensive)
  • Easy to set up*(Also see related disadvantage)


  • Batteries don’t last as long as I expected
  • When you set it up, if you don’t turn off cellular service on your phone you probably won’t be able to get the base station connected to the internet. It took me a few tries before I thought of doing this. It wasn’t suggested by the Arlo app either.
  • You can’t actually view or save the footage to local storage. I wish that somebody would reverse engineer the Arlo camera to record over a network connection to a hard disk. This is a huge drawback for most consumer grade camera systems, many of them come with required phone apps. Who knows how diligent the manufacturer was in designing this app with your phone’s security in mind? Will they patch this app over the next five years?

First up is the Arlo Pro 2 camera and basestation system. I purchased a five camera set from Netgear/Arlo about three years ago. Now I have a deep-seated fear of hardware reliant on batteries, but I ignored this fear because I’m living in a rented space whose landlord is particularly adamant about me not altering anything like drilling or nailing holes in the wall. I bought into the Arlo Pro 2 ecosystem precisely because it doesn’t require cables or screws to work.

Unfortunately my fears were well-founded. Out of the five cameras that I have, only one battery still works. One of the batteries died pretty early on and I went through some kind of warranty process but never got around to getting a replacement battery. I’m just too busy unlocking doors and installing locks. After discovering several more batteries are not charging today, I am weighing my options.

Re-evaluating Netgear’s Arlo cameras shows that things have actually gotten worse for the consumer. When I got my Arlo Pro 2 cameras one of the selling points was cloud storage for 7 days for free. This has not been continued for the Arlo Pro 3. Now you get a free trial of a subscription cloud storage service that is quite expensive to maintain when the trial expires. The cameras cost nearly $200 a piece, and who’s to say that the batteries in those won’t die prematurely? I believe that only lasting two-three years is unacceptable for this $400 product.

This leads me back to the Arlo Pro 2. There are two options to keep using these which still offer free cloud storage. I can buy new batteries but those are $50 each and as I have already seen will not last more than a few years. At $50 each I am approaching the cost of a new surveillance system from a competing company that doesn’t have lame batteries. I can buy Netgear Arlo solar panels for $80 but I’ve read that those don’t work very well either with people having to replace them every six months or so or clean corrosion off of the connectors to keep them working. I can buy knock-off batteries off of amazon but there are a lot of horror stories about cheap electronics on amazon catching on fire. I’m trying to protect my rented property, not burn it down!

Another option is to connect usb cables to these Arlo devices and supply them with AC power. If I do that though all of the benefits of the Arlo cameras are lost. I can get better cameras for the money if I’m willing to run cables.

Along with concerns about flushing money there is also the concern of hazardous waste. I don’t want to buy a product that will be going into a landfill, especially if it has circuitboards full of rare earth metals. It seems irresponsible of manufacturers to produce something like this just it is irresponsible of consumers to support it.

Two other cameras I have purchased over the years I tried because I got a “good deal” at a tradeshow. Abus is a fantastic manufacturer of locks but unfortunately it seems their dive into the surveillance market was a bellyflop in my experience.

The first camera I got from Abus worked, but then somebody was able to remotely access it and take control of it. This is concerning when the camera is in your bedroom. I remember watching it spin away from the window I had it pointed at and turn to me lying in bed. Fortunately I was awake to see this and who knows how long this person had access to it before I became aware of this. I did some research on this problem which is not unknown to the internet. Apparently Chinese manufacturers hardcode passwords into the firmware of cheap internet connected hardware such as these and once somebody reverse engineers the device, or more likely somebody with access to the original sourcecode decides to exploit it, all of these cameras are then ripe for abusing.

The second camera I got from Abus was several hundred dollars and meant for use outdoors. I mounted it fifteen feet up on a commercial building to monitor a business venture my parents had. Somebody was stealing my mother’s flower pots of all things! It would have been great to get a license plate, though the police of course would do nothing about stolen flowers. This camera just stopped working after six months. Cheap hardware, it was a waste of money for me, and a waste of time for the no doubt exploited workforce in China who made it, and a waste of precious materials our children’s children may have trouble finding in any abundance.

What am I considering going with after all of these failures? Tyco makes a product called the Illustra that is high quality but it looks like that also works with a subscription cloud storage service. I am probably going to buy a DVR with POE (power over ethernet) that works with eight cameras. I’ll just route the wires over the walls in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

LaView seems to be making inexpensive cameras that last and I can access recordings on a filesystem with my computer and automatically upload the recordings to for free, or to a dynamic ip address that is offsite. Lifetime tech support!