Smartphone surveillance on the rise for SMBs

The latest generation of IP-based business security cameras is putting an end to night-time alarm callouts, with business owners now able to check on their commercial premises with a quick glance at a smartphone or tablet.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

The market for internet-connected IP surveillance cameras is fast outpacing the market for traditional analogue closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV), a trend resulting from a combination of growing affordability, capability and, in part, today's smartphone culture.

The capability to remotely monitor and control IP-based security camera systems directly from a mobile device is now a major drawcard and is playing an increasingly central role in business owners' decisions to upgrade to a connected digital surveillance system. Such systems generally either have individual cameras with their own IP assignations or an IP-based recording unit.

"There are a lot of traditional CCTV cameras in buildings, but the IP systems are outpacing those traditional systems because they're more cost-effective," said D-Link Australia and New Zealand managing director, Graeme Reardon. "With an IP system, video footage effectively becomes data on the network, and you can do a lot with it then -- send it to a monitor, archive it, or perhaps run analytics through it."

Reardon himself has directly benefited from the remote control capabilities of the surveillance technology his own company makes and sells in the local market. Once upon a time, he would have to drive out to respond in person if an alarm at the D-Link Sydney office was triggered during the night. Now, he's able to check things out from home on his phone.

"What used to really frustrate me was that I'd get a call from our alarm company at two in the morning," Reardon told ZDNet. "What do I do? I would have no idea if it was a false alarm, or if we [had an intruder]. I'd get in the car, in the middle of the night, and drive into the office, usually by myself. I'd walk in, tentatively wondering 'what's happening here?' hoping for the best.

"With the current technology, I can check it out easily. This is despite having had, probably, about 12 or 15 callouts in the past three years. Now I can just fire up the app on my Samsung Note 5, and see what's going on in the office -- in virtually every corner of the office, just by looking at my phone, rather than going out in person. That's a huge saving in terms of worry and safety for myself, and it's a big plus for small and medium-sized business owners," he said.

With high definition cameras installed in D-Link's Sydney warehouse, as well as its smaller front office premises, Reardon has the ability to spot any disturbance relatively quickly and easily from anywhere, as long as he has decent wireless data coverage. From his perspective, it is this ability that is driving many smaller businesses to take up the IP camera technology.

Many IP-based business surveillance systems have the ability to be used with third party apps, thanks to open standards like the Open Network Video Interface Forum global standard for the interface of physical IP-based security devices.

Individual IP surveillance cameras have the capability to be monitored, controlled, and manipulated remotely via a smartphone app. But in many cases, it is the network video recorder (NVR), to which multiple cameras direct their digital feeds, that acts as the primary point of access to the outside world.

Larger surveillance systems with more than half a dozen or so cameras generally use an NVR for storage, whereas smaller systems with just a few cameras often record directly to an on-board SD card. While larger systems might use third party analytics software, a lot of smaller systems are able to draw on the basic analytics services baked into individual cameras.

Most IP cameras on the market come with some form of analytics. It could be something as simple as a digital motion detector which, when triggered, switches the camera's operation from a low-resolution, low frame-per-second setting to a higher setting. Features like this make it possible to maintain imaging standards when needed, while making the most of the storage space required to record surveillance footage.

"One of the really interesting examples of how analytics can be used is in traffic management," said Reardon. "Retail stores, for example, might want to monitor and manage traffic patterns in their premises to drive people to certain areas where there might be special offers."

Connected surveillance for all budgets

A multitude of features are becoming available to businesses at the smaller end of the market with the cost of IP surveillance systems coming down as the technology behind them becomes increasingly commoditised. These features include remote zoom and direction controls, automated setting switches triggers and, of course, analytics.

According to Campbell Letson, general manager of Sydney-based enterprise security system specialist Perisale Australia, analytics has become a large portion of what businesses ask for when implementing surveillance systems. With the potential to help manage crowds and identify individuals or objects, analytical software has a lot to offer.

However, many businesses at the smaller end of the market tend to baulk at the price tag attached to the more sophisticated third party analytics that can now be applied to digital camera feeds. Solutions with advanced analytics can cost between AU$20,000 and AU$100,000, according to Letson.

While analytics might add to the price tag of a surveillance system, hardware prices have generally gone down. But this might not always be a good thing. Business owners get what they pay for and, according to Letson, they might save money on a cheaper system up-front only to find that it doesn't suit business requirements over the long-term. Different types of cameras suit different applications, and it's easy to get it wrong.

One of the ways smaller businesses can set themselves up to reap the benefits of digital IP surveillance systems without forking out a big budget is to opt for a hybrid system, which combines existing analogue cameras and coaxial cabling with a digital NVR or control unit that has an assigned IP address and connection for remote monitoring and control from mobile devices.

In many cases, it is the NVR that is assigned an IP address and connected to the internet rather than individual cameras, so the implementation of a hybrid surveillance system makes a lot of sense. Similarly, existing non-IP digital cameras can be hooked up to NVRs via an existing powered Ethernet network.

This is a potentially valuable option for many businesses, as the cabling of a surveillance camera network can often make up more than half the cost of the entire system. A hybrid configuration also opens up the possibility of incrementally upgrading a system over time, one camera at a time, making it more affordable for businesses over the short-term.

This way, business owners can start taking advantage of IP surveillance systems' mobile access capabilities, such as push email notifications triggered by motion detection, and access to recorded or real-time video streams, without investing in an entire system.

While the hybrid route is an ideal way for businesses to make use of the latest technology, Letson suggests that business owners should invest in adequate cabling at some point, sooner rather than later, to set themselves up for the future.

"Businesses looking to IP cameras should upgrade the cabling and digital recorder because, in a couple of years, the analytics that leverage your equipment will become far more useful and affordable," he said. "That's the justification to move to an IP-based system sooner rather than later, because as the analytics becomes more affordable, you can begin to use it. But with the older systems, it's never going to work."

A question of bandwidth

Although the latest connected camera systems give business owners an unprecedented amount of remote access and control, the data streams required to achieve these capabilities can be hampered by other factors -- most notably, internal network and external internet bandwidth limitations.

"A big area of business for us is WAN and enterprise storage," said Letson. "A very big area of demand in the SMB market is driven by the need for surveillance data streams between head offices and remote locations. Until recently, it just hasn't been possible."

From Letson's perspective, the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) -- despite that network's comparatively slow upload speeds -- and the growth of "ethernet first" offerings from local internet service providers are making the connectivity issue an easier hurdle for SMBs to jump over.

Older technology such as DSL and other copper cable-based connection technology traditionally made it difficult for businesses to ensure the bandwidth needed to upload the large blocks of data streams needed for video surveillance feeds.

Now, thanks to a combination of faster broadband offerings, new camera and NVR technology, and powerful compression technology, such as H.264, reducing the need for large chunks of uninterrupted upload data, it is easier for businesses to make use of the remote capabilities of IP surveillance technology.

Digital security cameras are becoming more stable in their ability to keep bandwidth use to a minimum, according to Sony Australia and New Zealand's Video Security Solutions sales and marketing manager, Steve Charles. Sony's range of digital surveillance cameras, for example, makes use of data compression technology and has extensive control over things like resolution and frame-rate to help keep the bit rate of the camera or the NVR constant.

"You can now manage the bit rate much better," Charles told ZDNet. "For example, we have cameras that can be set so that motion is reported at full bit rate, so the end user can minimise the amount of storage [and bandwidth] required."

Securing surveillance networks

While the bandwidth problem is slowly being solved, the problem of security is only becoming greater. As with many of the connected devices comprising the Internet of Things (IoT), IP surveillance equipment has the potential to present weaknesses when it comes to information security.

"Security is a much bigger issue than what you might think it is. Anything connected to the internet has the potential to be hacked. There are cameras on the market, even at the higher end, that don't have any sort of provision to prevent people from hacking into them," said Charles.

While stressing that Sony cameras all have "tier one" security technology and certification in place to help prevent breaches, Charles concedes that, as with any connected device, there may be secondary ways for someone to get around security measures and gain access to an IP surveillance system.

At the same time, Charles warns that it is not only cameras with insufficient security technology in place that businesses have to watch out for, but also professional installers without the right knowledge or training to properly secure a surveillance system network.

"You need to design a system to make sure there's no crossover with insecure networks," said Charles. "The bigger the system, the greater the need to have a network designed by a professional. Most of the time, issues don't arise from the camera, but rather from the installation."

Installation issues aside, business owners should make sure that their IP surveillance systems have the same level of password protection and tiered permission access regime as any other connected business system, according to Paul Sims, national sales manager of security, video and access control system integrator JD Security.

"Update your password and limit access to the system," said Sims. "If staff come and go, change your password. You should be changing it frequently anyway."

The very thing that makes IP surveillance systems such a drawcard for SMB owners -- the ability to access and control them remotely from a mobile device -- can also open up potential vulnerabilities. With this in mind, Sims recommends that business owners keep the number of people with mobile access to surveillance systems to a minimum to reduce the potential for endpoint breaches.

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