What Price Surveillance?

Disclaimer: This post isn’t about government surveillance and all that entails. It’s about private/personal/consumer surveillance products and services.

Consumers have never had more choice when it comes to home monitoring and surveillance solutions. For years there have been the usual alarm companies with 24/7 monitoring with video cameras and motion detectors. Companies like ADT and Bay Alarm. These require professional installation, proprietary hardware, up front hardware costs, and long-term (typicaly 3 year) monthly service/monitoring contracts. We’re talking hundreds of dollars up front and $30-$40/month for three years commitment. And of course these are fixed (stationary/non-mobile) solutions that monitor a pre-determined fixed location (your hoouse).

Next we had the advent of smartphone-based monitoring solutions so that consumers could break free from the alarm panel and monitor cameras at their house or property and get alerts via a smartphone app like ADT Pulse or AT&T Digital Life. But still, these are costly (while being feature rich) solutions and have long-term contracts attached.

Now we’re seeing “Over the Top” (OTT) video surveillance, motion detection, carbon monoxide, and temperature sensing solutions like Dropcam and Canary. These are self-monitoring solutions and 100% smartphone based. No alarm panels to deal with. However, they are still expensive (Dropcam starts at $149, Foscam at $79, HomeMonitor at $179) requiring dedicated cameras, and are fixed solutions. What do I mean by fixed? I mean they’re stationary and are difficult or cumbersome to move to another location and are not at all suited for “ad hoc” or temporary surveillance use cases where you might want to watch a particular location for just an hour or two, pick up, and move on. They also require WiFi, and don’t work over mobile data networks like 3G/4G so for remote locations with no broadband connectivity, won’t work at all.

Now, having said all of that, these are great solutions for a particular range of use cases and budgets. Some have have 720p video, night vision, wide angle lens, digital zoom, 2-way audio, so they do pack some pretty cool features.

So the price points have come down and the flexibility/autonomy of the consumer to set up and monitor their own independent surveillance system has increased massively. That’s all good.

But there’s still something that until recently has been missing. There are millions of smartphone cameras out there that now have high quality cameras on them and operating systems and hardware sophisticated enough to run high-performance motion detection apps. And the best part is, they’re always with their owner. This has opened up a new opportunity that we like to call “casual surveillance”.

Casual surveillance is surveillance that isn’t necessarily mission-critical, but rather is a super low cost way to leverage hardware (smartphones) that you already have to deliver a motion detection and photo surveillance solution for both fixed or on-the-go mobile locations. A great example is if you’re visiting a shared workspace and have to leave your backpack in a place that could put it at risk of theft. Using a self-made “stand” out of a coffee cup or making a hidden camera inside a small cardboard box (like a cellphone box or tissue box) , you can monitor that backpack for a short period of time, then take it down when you leave. All motion (including the smartphone itself being used as the motion detection camera) is immediately detected, pictures captured, in some cases auto-uploaded to the cloud, and the user alerted immediately so that they can stop the theft or at least, capture pictures of the thief.

There are several motion detection camera apps out there now that are filling out the spectrum of surveillance solutions for consumers at the low (casual) end of the price/feature spectrum. Go and check them out at your app store of choice. You’d be surprised at what you can do with your smartphone these days, whether it’s the one you use on a daily basis, or an old one that’s sitting in a drawer somewhere. And this type of casual surveillance solution costs next to nothing compared with the previously mentioned solutions.

Happy surveying.

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