Home Security Gets A Web Makeover

Forget the closet control panel, today's Internet- and smartphone-enabled home security systems allow browser-based management, SMS updates, live video feeds, and money-saving DIY options.

Dark Reading Staff, Dark Reading

September 10, 2008

9 Min Read

U R BN RBBDEvent notifications can be relayed to cell phones via text messaging.

(click for image gallery)

Can you install a reliable security system for a home or small business on the cheap, and manage it while on the go?

That was the question posed by James Seibert, owner and president of Information Security Defense Network in St. Peters, Mo. "We moved into a new office about a year and a half ago, and when we did, we needed a new alarm system. Being an IT-based company, one of the main things I was looking for was a way to manage the system remotely, from top to bottom, because I'm not in the office so much. And I actually didn't think I was going to find what I needed."

Ultimately, however, Seibert discovered a do-it-yourself, browser-configurable system from Alarm.com, which he installed himself. This involved placing wireless sensors -- backed by adhesive -- on doors he wanted to secure, choosing a location for the base station, and then configuring the system from his browser.

He said the process took very little time, and that he was surprised by all of the unexpected features included. For starters, he can assign each employee a unique alarm code, so he knows who's coming and going. He also created various notification rules, and now receives an e-mail when the first employee arrives each morning (meaning the business is open), as well as when any door is opened after the normal closing time (since that's suspicious). And the total cost for the system was low -- less than $1,000. The bottom line, he said, is that the Alarm.com system "made it feasible for me to put this together, and didn't break the bank to do it."

Next-Generation Security Systems

Today, "about 27% of all households in the United States have some kind of security system, and 21% of all households have a security system that's professionally monitored," said Bill Ablondi, director of home systems research at Dallas-based research firm Parks Associates. The vast majority of these security systems are the provenance of large security companies -- the leaders are ADT, Brinks, and Protection One -- who install and then monitor them for a monthly fee via controllers that rely on your telephone line.

Now, however, a new generation of Internet- and cellular-enabled security systems -- including Alarm.com (available through resellers), AT&T's Remote Monitor, InGrid, LaserShield, and WiLife -- offers to do more than just stop the bad guys, and for less money than a traditional security system.

Some options involve do-it-yourself installation, while others must be professionally installed. Some companies, including iControl and uControl, are developing technology to enhance traditional security systems (and which will not be sold direct to consumers). Cable companies are also starting to get into the game, offering next-generation home security as part of a "quadruple play" that bundles it with cable television, phone, and broadband.

To Monitor -- Or Not

Typical next-generation system monitoring costs $30-$50 per month and is all-inclusive. "Our single most popular feature is text messaging, we don't charge by the message, and we have customers who get hundreds of messages per day," said Lou Stilp, CEO of InGrid, who limits his notifications to about 10-12 text messages per day. "I'm interested in when my wife or daughter arms or disarms," he explained. Really, then, the alarm system "functions as a remote door chime" -- he knows when something is happening in the house, even if he's not there.

With a traditional alarm system, if you don't pay for the monitoring service, then your only notification when the alarm trips is that the buzzer sounds -- and if you're away, here's hoping your neighbor calls the cops. With next-generation systems, however, self-monitoring is actually a viable option, since the system can still dispatch an e-mail through your broadband router to let you know something may be amiss.

Next-gen systems, like this one from InGrid, cost less than traditional security systems and include more features.

(click for image gallery)

Customize to your Heart's Content

As befits their DIY-, IP-, wireless-, GSM-, and Web-enabled ethos, the typical next-generation security system is not only more redundant than a traditional system, but costs significantly less.

"The average dealer-installed security system in 2008 was about $770-$800," said Ablondi. Whereas for DIY, "it's about $180 for the average security controller," and while that doesn't include the sensors, adding a grab-bag of wireless sensors and a motion detector should still keep the bill under $400. Of course, "if you have a large home with 37 rooms and you're putting window monitors on all of that," he said, expect to pay more.

Another perk: add extras anytime you want. Options include additional controllers (to make the system easier to use and more difficult to bypass), specialized sensors, keychain fobs to wirelessly activate/deactivate the security system (think car clicker for the home), extenders for greater range, and even wireless video cameras. "We have three cats and my wife loves to check on them with her cell phone. We have a camera pointed at the couch where they sleep," said InGrid's Stilp.

More Is Better

"Today, peace of mind or safety is the core reason people buy a home security system, and at the end of the month, if the home security company has done a good job, nothing has happened," noted Paul Dawes, CEO of iControl.

"Traditional systems, when they're armed, they do one thing: if alarm goes off, it calls the station," said Mary Knebel, VP for marketing and business development at Alarm.com. But with next-generation, Internet-enabled security appliances in the home, those functions are just... boring.

Rather, the dominant next-generation security system ethos seems to be "more is better." Meaning, "it's not just about burglary," said Stilp. One of InGrid's most popular features, for example, is the weather report, as well as severe weather warnings. Meanwhile, uControl said it will offer a Flickr widget, making its touch-screen security console double as a digital picture frame in its downtime.

Furthermore, all next-generation systems work even in a disarmed -- or not (professionally) monitored -- state. For example, said Knebel, "we can push notifications that the front door sensor sees that little Susie got home from school at 3 o'clock, we can alert someone who has a second home there was unauthorized access, a power outage, or a water alert, we can relay temperatures in data centers and restaurant freezers. So there's a lot of non-alarm data that's very meaningful."

Monitoring for the absence of expected activities can also be quite useful. For example, Ablondi said such a system could monitor the home of an elderly relative, with a notification set to alert you if the motion detector doesn't detect any movement in the home by noon. "It could be comforting for people who are concerned about elderly parents, and perhaps let them live in the home a little longer and not need so much care," he notes.

Wireless sensors in next-gen security systems mean DIY'ers don't need to run wires or worry about repositioning sensors.

(click for image gallery)

Home Security Feng Shui

Does installing your own security system make it less effective? Experts say no. In fact, one reason DIY next-generation systems can be quickly and reliably installed is because the control panel and sensors are wireless.

This makes them easy to reposition if you change your mind. For example, ISDN's Seibert said that using wireless sensors "allowed me to alarm doors inside our office that normally would have required major running of wire and problems, and I can alarm doors inside the office that I wasn't going to originally alarm." That includes the data center door, which he monitors simply to know who's going in or out without having to review the CCTV feed.

Upgrades Galore

Next-generation systems let you add sensors relatively ad infinitum without a bump in monitoring fees (except, typically, for live video feeds or if you're adding a cellular backbone). Furthermore, sensors cost as little as $20. And some systems can even be tied together remotely, for example to monitor your vacation home via the controller in your primary residence.

This is leading many users to go with more than just the basics. According to Stilp, "the majority of security systems sold in the last 10-20 years have only had 2-3 security sensors, or 4-5 if you count motion detectors." By comparison, he said the average InGrid system has "12-15 sensors, and growing."

Options include siren detectors which listen for the smoke and carbon monoxide detector alarms you already own, temperature and moisture detectors, and even swimming pool monitors (letting you know if someone takes an unauthorized dip). Additional extenders can also add range to a system. Finally, more than one vendor is racing to develop an iPhone application for remote system management. Wireless IP-based video cameras with pan/tilt capabilities are also on the way.

Future State Of The Art

What else might next-generation security systems offer? One trend to watch, said Ablondi, is more remote-control security for the home, such as the new Z-Wave lock made by Schlage. Scheduled to reach the market by 2009, the battery-operated keypad lock communicates via radio frequency technology with a Web-enabled gateway, allowing users to access any door remotely to unlock or lock the door and create or disable pass codes. So if you're expecting a contractor, "the combination can be 1-2-3 -4 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when they're supposed to show up, and after that it reverts to a secret code when they're not supposed to be in the place."

Beyond remote locks, Ablondi said his research finds that 12-15% of households are interested in remotely controlling the temperature or lighting in their home, and remote-controlled thermostats are likewise on the way. Think about it: Did you accidentally leave the heat cranked up while on a two-week winter ski vacation? Just dial the furnace down from the slopes with your iPhone or BlackBerry and save a bundle in energy costs. Given the price of oil, that may be the next wave in "home security."

About the Author(s)

Dark Reading Staff

Dark Reading

Dark Reading is a leading cybersecurity media site.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights