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

Advantages

  • 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)

Disadvantages

  • 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 mega.co.nz for free, or to a dynamic ip address that is offsite. Lifetime tech support!

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Bjørn Madsen

I am the Seattle locksmith you've been looking for. High Quality work at a reasonable price delivered in a timely fashion.