Are home security cameras ready for business use?

Thinking of buying a consumer IP camera for use as a surveillance system in your business? Read this first.

After decades of lowering crime, rates are on the uptick again. It’s no surprise then that the global home security camera market, led by low cost consumer IP “cams”, is expected to be worth $8 billion by 2023. Starting as low as $30 per camera, everyone from Amazon to your cable provider, to your trusted WiFi vendor is trying to sell you a home security camera. Just plug in your IP camera and be alerted on your phone anytime something moves is the promise.

With consumer-based, IP cameras becoming so popular and easy to use, CSO wondered if they were ready for use by small businesses or within larger enterprises? The answer is a qualified yes for small businesses, and probably not for enterprises.

Home security camera features

Even today’s inexpensive security cameras come with a multitude of features that, until recently, you could only get in high-end, expensive systems. Common features include HD video capture, built-in LED lighting, microphones for sound recording, two-way audio, outdoor weather proofing, pan-and-tilt motion, infrared (IR) motion detection, IR night vision, ability to capture videos to file, email and phone alerts, wireless, battery-powered and customizable motion zones. Some security cameras, like the models from Ring.com, come with 110-decibel alarms and solar charging. Out of all the features, having a camera with pan-and-tilt ability will cost you the most.

The vast majority of these cameras work by plugging them into an electrical outlet or USB port, assigning an IP address from your already existing personal WiFi network, doing some base configuration, and then managing and operating them using software. The software is almost always available for Apple and Android phones, and may be available for Microsoft Windows or Apple computers.

Note to WiFi users: Security cameras come in both physical wire and wireless versions. Be aware that the WiFi versions are never as reliable as wired versions. Professional security camera installers insist on installing wired cameras for reliability, especially if they are going to have to provide ongoing support and warranties. Besides dropped video and random disconnections, you might end up flooding your personal WiFi network with so much traffic that it becomes unusable (to the point that even additional WiFi routers broadcasting on new networks can't solve the problem). Many first-time camera users think they can save a cord by using WiFi, but that camera usually still requires power (if it isn’t battery or solar powered). Common advice for consumers from professional installers is to install wired cameras where they can and only use WiFi cameras where they have to.  

The quality of the cameras and software runs the gambit, although the camera hardware is usually close to what is promised. Many of the software programs are generic and for use across a wide range of cameras, and will show features and options that do not apply to your camera. Some of the software is so poorly coded that you can just feel the vulnerabilities seeping out. Other camera software has decent end-user interfaces, but don’t have a lot of features, and operate better on the cell phone where fat fingers can easily select among a few options. Not all of the camera software is this way, but clearly many security camera vendors care more about the hardware and don’t have the same quality control and concern about the software. Most consumer camera software programs are designed to work with a single camera at a time, even if you can select among multiple cameras.

Consumers beware: IP security cameras and their software often contain vulnerabilities that are exploited by hackers and malware. Hackers may be able to use your camera against you. Be cognitive of that risk when you place your camera. Malware writers often use other people’s security cameras as nodes in a larger bot network to attack other victims using distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Make sure all recommended security practices are followed, such as patching, changing default passwords, etc.

Enterprise surveillance camera features

Professional, enterprise security camera systems begin at the many thousands of dollars and go up to the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. So what are the features that make a security camera system enterprise-ready? Why can’t any business buy a few consumer cameras, hang them up, and then bathe in the warm glow of assured security monitoring?

These 6 quality upgrades are why enterprise security cameras are considered enterprise.

1. Better hardware. Enterprise security cameras are top notch, rugged equipment. Many of today’s cheaper consumer cameras may seem like they have the same features at a much lower price point, but you simply can’t get the same quality for $30 that you can for $3000. An enterprise security camera is generally going to cover a larger field of view, further out, with better clarity. It will have better components that will last longer. The pan-and-tilt engines are going to be more reliable and faster. The external camera case itself will be more durable, made from better materials. The wireless signals will be stronger. In the consumer space, whatever distance the wireless cameras claim, cut them immediately in half, if not more for practical use. An enterprise camera is usually going to have a better glass lens, which simply outperforms the best plastic lenses that are used in consumer-grade cameras. Enterprise cameras and their components have usually been tested together to work all the kinks out.

2. Multiple video streams. Enterprise security cameras usually come with dedicated televisions that can be running many real-time camera views at the same time, often focused statically on some views while cycling between others. A consumer security camera console usually shows only one camera stream at a time, although some of the higher-end consumer systems come close to matching what the enterprise cameras show, and allow multiple video streams to be shown on any television or computer. But with most consumer cameras, you’ll be shown a console and allowed to switch between a fairly limited number of cameras. To view video on a different camera you’ll have to back out of the current camera and logon to another. This may not sound like a hardship, but it can be a big time waster especially if you want to regularly check on different cameras.

3. Long-term storage. Enterprise camera systems will usually allow months of video traffic to be automatically stored. Many consumer cameras only save video when the user specifically instructs it to on an ad hoc basis, although how much you can save is only limited by available hard drive space. If there is automatic storage, it is usually measured in seconds or minutes, or in higher-end consumer systems, days to months. All enterprise systems automatically store for a month or longer. Because consumer cameras are often set to default as ad hoc capturing, many times the most crucial events are missed if the user isn’t actively monitoring the stream at the time it is being recorded. 

4. Weatherproofing. An external enterprise camera that claims to be weatherproof is likely to withstand a hurricane. Some consumer cameras that claim the same can often be taken out by a light rain or snow.

Note: This author once bought a relatively “high-end” consumer security camera that claimed to be weatherproof, but during the first light rain it stopped working. I called technical support and they said the camera had to be placed under an overhang as was not warrantied for direct exposure to rain. I bought a recommended weatherproof security camera case, and although it did successfully stop the weather issues, the case prevents the IR portion of my cameras from working.  

5. Professional install. An enterprise security camera system is usually installed by an experienced professional who knows all the questions to ask and who surveys your property to see what you need to have. They make recommendations, give you choices, and then install, configure and provide training. Consumer cameras rarely come with any real advice, and what little they may have is contained in a few paragraphs on their website or online instruction manual. In addition, an enterprise camera system may come with up to a 5-year warranty, whereas, consumer cameras are usually limited to one year.

6. Better software. Without a doubt, enterprise systems have better software. Anyone complaining about the quality of their enterprise camera system’s software hasn’t spent enough time with consumer systems. Enterprise camera systems couldn’t exist if they didn’t come with a myriad of customizable features and somewhat frequent upgrades. Many consumer systems are NEVER updated after release. Consumer vendors often rely on customers upgrading to their latest cameras and versions as a legitimate way for the customer to get a better product. This would be unacceptable in the enterprise world. Before you buy a consumer camera, find out from existing users how the software is, how many bugs it contains, and how long consumers have to wait between software upgrades.

Recommendation

Small businesses may be able to get away with one to a few consumer security cameras as long as they understand the inherent weaknesses, as explained above. More sophisticated businesses and enterprises may be able to get away with higher-end consumer security camera systems that are intended to bridge the gap between cheap and more limited consumer versions and significantly more expensive editions that have always been directed at the large enterprise. The key is to understand what you need from your security camera systems and to realize that, like most things in life, you get what you pay for.

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