Eye on the Living Room: How Dropcam Makes Surveillance Feel Safe

Eye on the Living Room: How Dropcam Makes Surveillance Feel Safe

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don’t want to share it with the world, you don’t have to. The crux of this is we are putting the responsibility for what should be recorded and when in the hands of each individual user.”

Secondly, all video from Dropcam devices is encrypted before it reaches Dropcam’s servers, using bank-level security that even the nation’s top spymasters would have a hard time breaking, according to Duffy. That means Dropcam couldn’t comply with a subpoena or a National Security Letter even if it wanted to. “The fact that we store the video in our cloud doesn’t mean we have any right to it, and it doesn’t mean we have any power to hand it out to law enforcement,” Duffy says.

The third protection is a bit more abstract, but perhaps even more reassuring: it’s the fact that Dropcam has a simple business model, built around selling cameras and cloud storage directly to consumers. The company has no incentive to use the data for anything else. “Facebook is also cataloguing your life, but you don’t pay them to do that, so their incentives are quite different,” Duffy says. “They want to use your data to sell things. With Dropcam, you have ultimate control.”

Wi-Fi Video Monitoring Options for the Home
Dropcam www.dropcam.com
$149 per camera, $9.95 per month for 7-day cloud storage
Home Monitor www.homemonitor.me
$199.99 per camera, free 7-day storage of “motion clips”
Logitech Alert www.logitech.com/en-us/video-security-systems
$299.99 per camera, Dropbox cloud storage optional
Netgear VueZone www.vuezone.com
$199.99 for 1-camera system, $49.95 per year for 250 MB cloud storage
Stem Izon steminnovation.com/section/iZON/24
$129.95 per camera, free online storage for up to 25 events per day

What really scared my colleagues Charles Mann and Dan Farmer back in 2003 wasn’t the spread of video cameras, but the fact that it was getting easier to store and analyze the data they capture. “The computer networks on which monitoring data are stored and manipulated continue to grow faster, cheaper, smarter, and able to store information in greater volume for longer times,” they warned. Myriad small-scale video networks might eventually feed up into large databases accessible to law enforcement agencies or corporations, they worried—and there would be little way for those being surveilled to correct bad data or prevent misinterpretations.

One way to minimize the misuse of surveillance databases, Farmer and Mann suggested, would be to compartmentalize and encrypt the data, so that only authorized users could access it, and only for certain purposes. Writing in the immediate wake of 9/11, however, they saw little chance that such protections would actually be implemented.

But they may have been too pessimistic. Only by imposing such strict controls, arguably, have companies like Dropcam managed to avoid Facebook-style privacy fiascoes while clearing the way for the emergence of a big home video monitoring market. A really big market: Duffy says Dropcam already collects more video data every day than YouTube, and it’s just one of a half-dozen companies selling Wi-Fi video monitoring cameras (see table). Revenue from device sales and subscriptions will probably save the startup from needing venture capital beyond the $18 million it’s already raised, Duffy says.

Given that a username and password are all that’s needed to access your account, a privacy breach involving Dropcam or one of the competing video monitoring companies is entirely conceivable—perhaps inevitable. But maybe such things will matter less and less in the future. Duffy tells a story about Dropcam’s vice president of marketing, whose young son “gets upset if the Dropcam isn’t on. He feels like mommy can see him and talk to him through the Dropcam when she’s away.” Kids who grow up on cam, in other words, may have a totally different set of expectations about privacy, or what it means to be alone.

In addition, once people internalize the knowledge that they’re on camera much of the time, they may simply stop doing or saying things that would be embarrassing or incriminating. You could call this the Eric Schmidt Effect: as the Google chairman said in 2009, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

In a world that honest, we wouldn’t need Wi-Fi video cameras to secure our homes against burglars, but merely to help us keep an eye on things. Duffy tells another story about an apartment owner who watched his dog turn on the oven and start a fire. The man immediately called a neighbor, who went over to extinguish the blaze. “It’s amazing what happens in your home when you’re away,” Duffy says.

Indeed—I guess I should be happy that my dog merely barks.

[Update, 4/23/13: See our companion Xconomy article about Duffy's views on Silicon Valley startup culture and the best strategies for keeping employees happy.]

Here’s a 30-second introductory video from Dropcam.

Dropcam HD Video from Sparkpr on Vimeo.

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • http://www.carlease.uk.com/ CarLease UK

    Having recently experienced a pretty horrific criminal act focused on part of my home property I have installed extensive external security cameras. I can pick up the video link anywhere there is an on line connection and I must say this offers great peace of mind. The Dropcam internal option is certainly a product I will be exploring, accepting the usual comments about potential invasion of privacy, this type of product does offer a cost effective solution. If you require the product to be tested / endorsed in the UK…let me know!

  • http://twitter.com/SituCon SituCon Systems, Inc

    The issue is the
    technology, with traditional security cameras, privacy is not an option. Check
    out this camera technology –

    http://www.google.com/patents/US8123419?pg=PA2&dq=cirker&hl=en&sa=X&ei=FFZHUdGND_eo4AOO_YHQBA&ved=0CEUQ6AEwBg%23v=onepage&q=cirker&f=false#v=snippet&q=cirker&f=false

    it protects privacy by physically blocking the camera
    lens, so images can only be viewed when needed like when the homeowner is away
    or during emergencies so that responders can see firsthand what is going on.
    It’s the best of both worlds for – safety and privacy.

  • http://twitter.com/frenchcamp49er frenchcamp49er

    Dropcam is good when it works, had a buffering problem on their website yesterday and today I’m not getting notifications for motion detection which is a HUGH factor in making you feel safe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/eric.dc.549 Eric DC

      Hi Frenchcamp49er –

      Sorry to hear you’ve experienced some buffering and notification problems. I see you’ve reached out to our customer support team and are in email contact with us. Please reply to the support ticket if you’re still experiencing problems so we can help.

      Best,

      Eric from Dropcam Support

      • http://twitter.com/frenchcamp49er frenchcamp49er

        Everything seems to be working fine now. Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jereeves Jack E Reeves

    I have 2 Dropcams and LOVE them. I was recently hospitalized and was able to monitor my home, pets, and friends who were looking after them. I am looking to add another Dropcam by the end of the year. I recommend Dropcams to everyone I know that needs an affordable and reliable security system.

  • Shumin Zhai

    I love my dropcams. Too bad my insurance company (AllState) does not recognize them as real security service. I think they are far more useful and far more private than ADT and other human-in-the-loop services.

    • Yakuzahi

      The only reason the insurance company don’t recognize Dropcam or any other WiFi network camera because it’s very easy to “cut” the wireless connection with a simple phone jammer.

  • xamar

    About the other comments: I think the article is more about the privacy implications rather than how cool is the device itself. I think the hardware is brilliant, but the cloud requirement makes it a Big Brother’s eye on your home.

    There is no real privacy effort in ANY of these companies, they love data. They consume your video feed, highlight motion, do whatever analysis they want and then allow you to see/use it. The key is they’re reserving the right to do whatever they want with it in the future.

    The article really hits the point when saying that the differentiating factor now is the video analysis capabilities. Now think in HD (expands the data to play with), 24 hour/day connection and that these capabilities will expand exponentially. Need examples? Movies/Series/TV you are watching, for how long, when you chance channel, etc., same with videogames or any music you’re hearing, transcribing all your conversations for juicy information (places, intentions, criticism, communism), people that are in your house, tfacial recognition to do a graph of how comes and go…. I could continue but only thinking about this is freaking me out…

    You can clearly see that by the complete lack internal LAN support (without internet) or the fact that they are not encrypting the data with YOUR key. This later fact allows them to process your video and watch it as well as hand it to NSA of any other law enforcement agency if they’re ordered to (no matter what the founder says).

    Is preposterous to say that data need to be processed in the server side. Simple motion detection (and not that simple) can be perfectly done in the camera, it is not rocket science…

    The truth is that, although everything can be hacked, there are ways to provide real privacy. The device could encrypt the data with a key you create and upload to the cam (the public part of the key). Dropcam servers won’t be able to process the data and even in the case the NSA ask for it they won’t be able to decrypt it easily. On the other side, on every device you want to have access you’ll have the secret part of the key that will allow you to see the video feed. Done.

  • Jamie Muller

    I love my Dropcams as well! Have been using one of them in my living room and one in our garden with one of the cases from dropcamcases.com. Awesome product!