Build an Internet-centric, mobile-enabled video surveillance system

This is the first of a three-part series where our own David Gewirtz tests and installs a full-perimeter, Internet-centric, mobile-enabled video surveillance system. In this installment, he details the approach that didn't work.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

UPDATE: Part 2 is now available, as is Part 3.

Security is an area of considerable importance to me. While most of my work involves cybersecurity issues, I have long contended that homeland security begins at home. Since I work from home, and some of my work involves sensitive topics, building a secured home office has always been a high priority.

My wife vetoed plasma turrets, flame throwers, and automatic paint ball machine guns. The jury is still out on the motion-sensing pepper-spray yard sprinklers.

Shortly after buying this house, we started with an alarm system, a reporting and patrol protocol involving the local police department, motion-activated floodlights, and a perimeter security solution.

Okay, to be fair, I probably don't need all that, but I'm a geek and security systems are cool. So, well...you know...gadgets. Besides, this is the first time I've actually owned my own house and have the freedom to install stuff without having to apologize to my landlord (explaining the T-1 line running over my bathroom mirror was interesting) or ask permission.

I also had some difficulty with active defenses

My wife vetoed plasma turrets (too much permitting paperwork), flame throwers (apparently, setting fire to the neighboring woods is a negative), and automatic paint ball machine guns (paint splatters on the fence is also a negative). The town vetoed my idea for sod-covered, 12-foot deep trenches, insisting that town ordinances require deadly traps to be set back at least 25 feet from public areas. The jury is still out on whether or not we can install motion-sensing pepper-spray yard sprinklers (the town is still trying to figure out which permit is most applicable).

Fortunately, guard dogs are allowed, although personal, dog-sized plasma guns and projectile blasters were vetoed both by my wife and the city planning office. So far, no one has vetoed my use of a Parrot Drone, controllable from my iPhone, but I also haven't come up with a payload that's both an active deterrent and light enough for the drone to carry aloft for an extended flight.

All of that brought me back to video surveillance.

It isn't quite as cool as keeping a large bear in our back yard, but video cameras also eat a lot less. Once I accepted the fact that my wife doesn't really want armed guards patrolling the premises (except for celebrating meaningful special occasions, like my birthday, election day, Super Tuesday, and Black Friday), I decided to add video surveillance.

None of this is to say my wife is even the slightest bit unreasonable about important security items (or holiday celebrations). In Florida, it often rains on Christmas, so we've already reserved our Marines with umbrellas.

Unfortunately, most of the solutions I found (for video surveillance, not rain protection) seemed to have been designed back in the days before Windows XP came out. They knew virtually nothing about the Internet.

Most video surveillance systems of any note involve their own dedicated DVR (digital video recorder). They're self-contained systems that record activity to a DVR, and if you want to view that activity, you actually watch it on a monitor tied directly to the DVR.

Talk about old school!

I wanted a system that could be viewed, in real-time, from anywhere on the planet (including any room in the house). I wanted a system that could record video and upload that video to one or more secure repositories online. For this, the DVR solution wasn't appropriate.

Basic webcams wouldn't work either, because they're not really robust enough to survive outside reliably. I did, however, find some IP-enabled surveillance cameras, and some basic webcam security software, and tried that out. I eventually went with a different solution, and I'll tell you about that in the next article.

For now, let's talk about the solution I didn't go with.

My specs for cameras were pretty specific. I wanted both day and night vision. I wanted secure enough containment that normal (i.e., non-hurricane) weather couldn't damage the gear. And I wanted the camera to move, so I could point the camera at any location and see what was there.

I settled on the LOFTEK Sentinel D2. It had a lot going for it — and a lot of problems.

Image courtesy LOFTEK.

The biggest problem was that mounting it was a royal pain. It wouldn't work properly if mounted to a soffit (homeowners know the word "soffit" is the roof overhang — I never heard the term before owning a house). Because the mounting bracket was inflexible, mounting it to the soffit meant that the camera would look up (to the sky) and down (to the ground), but wouldn't track really well looking out over the yard.

Mounting to the wall of the house would be a pain, too. To begin with, I didn't want to cut into the finish of the house. It also required an extended mounting box (not included), because there are a ton of wires that come out from the thing, and they needed to be housed near the camera (because the connectors aren't all that long).

Worse, it had a ring of IR LEDs, but they shot straight down, so while you'd get night vision, you'd mostly get clear, infrared images of the tops of things. It just wasn't practical.

The LOFTEK Sentinel D2 had both a WiFi and wired Ethernet connection. I have pretty solid WiFi extending outside of the house, and with good wireless security that wasn't much of an issue. For network security reasons, I didn't want to extend even a single connector of my wired network outside of the walls of the house, so I wasn't going to run Ethernet to outside cameras.

The camera was usable, but I wasn't happy with it. The software interface was "meh," and while there are third-party software interfaces, they were generally unimpressive as well.

Even so, for a while the LOFTEK Sentinel seemed like about the best of the outdoor, IP-based solutions out there. Then, in one my many searches, I stumbled across the Logitech Alert system, which proved to be a win. I'll tell you all about that in the next article.

I'm actually quite glad I didn't go with the LOFTEK solution. Barely six months after purchasing the camera, it has vanished off the company's web site.

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