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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Do you want a camera in your kid's bedroom??

This morning's disturbing privacy story is the revelation that live feeds from thousands of 'home security cameras' run by the US company Trendnet have been 'breached', allowing anyone on the net access to video feeds, without the need for a password. It was reported in the BBC here, by their technology reporter Leo Kelion.

It's a disturbing tale. As Kelion describes it:

"Internet addresses which link to the video streams have been posted to a variety of popular messageboard sites. Users have expressed concern after finding they could view children's bedrooms among other locations. US-based Trendnet says it is in the process of releasing updates to correct a coding error introduced in 2010."

The internet being what it is, news of the problem seems to have spread faster than Trendnet has been able to control it. This is from Kelion's piece again:

"Within two days a list of 679 web addresses had been posted to one site, and others followed - in some cases listing the alleged Google Maps locations associated with each camera. Messages on one forum included: "someone caught a guy in denmark (traced to ip) getting naked in the bathroom." Another said: "I think this guy is doing situps."


One user wrote "Baby Spotted," causing another to comment "I feel like a pedophile watching this".

A cautionary tale, one might think, and to privacy people like me a lot of questions immediately come to mind. Many of them, particularly the technical ones, have been answered in Kelion's piece. There is one question, however, that is conspicuous by its absence from Kelion's otherwise excellent piece: what are the cameras doing in children's bedrooms in the first place? Is it normal, now, to have this kind of level of surveillance in our private homes? In our children's bedrooms?

I asked Kelion about this on twitter, and his initial (and admirably instant) response was that security cameras were nothing new, but the breach in the feeds was. That was news, the presence of the cameras was not. That set me thinking - and made me write this blog. Is he right? Should we just 'accept' the presence of surveillance even in our most intimate and private places? The success of companies like Trendnet suggests that many thousands of people do accept it - but I hope that millions more don't. I also hope that an affair like this will make some people think twice before installing their own 'private' big brother system.

Surveillance is a double-edged sword. Just as any data on the internet is ultimately vulnerable, so is any data feed - the only way for data not to be vulnerable is for it not to exist. Those parents wanting to protect their children from being watched in the internet have a simple solution: don't install the cameras in the first place!

It's the same story over and over again in the world of privacy and surveillance. We build systems, gather data, set up infrastructures and then seem shocked and amazed when they prove vulnerable. It shouldn't be a surprise... we should think before we build, think before we design, think before we install...

18 comments:

  1. I have a similar model of cam at home. I use it as a security cam - it gets switched on when I leave home & emails me photos of any movement. I can also watch live via my phone.

    I can see the need to survey personal property. I can also see the desire to keep an eye on the nanny, cleaner, and painter.

    Watching your own kids... If they're on the 3rd floor & you don't want to climb the stairs to investigate every noise... perhaps.

    It does feel a bit creepy - but is it any worse than sitting in your child's room while they sleep?

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  2. For me, it is worse than sitting in your child's room while they sleep - partly because of the risks involved (of which this story is an example) and partly because it's a permanent system, functioning 24/7.

    What's more, I don't sit in my child's room every hour that they sleep - and wouldn't want to either for their sake or for mine. Also, I don't sit in my child's room all the time she's awake - she needs her privacy too, and has a right to it. I do understand that not all parents think their children have a right to privacy, but from my perspective they do. I've blogged on the subject before - even at five years old my daughter often specifically asks for privacy. I respect that....

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  3. Paul, As I mentioned this morning on Twitter, when I involved the journalist Leo Kellion on Twitter, I can understand a marginal need for such surveillance for babies who suffer from apnea, or elderly people, etc... In which case, there is a need for permanent surveillance. I was less sure about the need to broadcast online but you had the technical argument for it. what I wish Kellion could have answered was which other rooms were monitored, apart his mention of the bathroom and if recordings were kept of the footage. I have also Googled the product and nowhere I could find any warning for buyers about the firmware security whole. According to the article, the company could not contact them as rarely buyers would register their product. ~That means the movie is still on?

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  4. I'd hoped he would at least acknowledge your concerns - or mine... but maybe he will tomorrow. I'll tweet him again in the morning with the link, and see if he reads the blog!

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  5. I don't have kids so am not best placed to judge. However, kids need privacy. They need safety and security but surely they get that from having a parent, relative or sitter in the house who can respond if they need anything. If a person doesn't trust their own child, that's a problem. If they feel the need to keep an eye on those in the house (i.e. sitter), then why leave the kids alone with them. I'm probably missing entirely valid uses of this technology, but the kiddie camera sounds like a symptom of something. And if they're networked, the opportunity for this kind of security breach sounds too obvious to take the risk.

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  6. No, I don't think you're missing anything - the opposite, I think you've got one of the main points spot on. It's about replacing trust with technology, and then being shocked that the technology lets them down.... Thanks for the comment!

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  8. Yes I want a camera for my kids room if they robbed or vandalized while they are away or while sleeping, a surveillance camera will help them catch this activity on tape.

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  16. Surveillance cameras should be used for security purposes and not for invading the private lives of people. If you want your family to have home protection, think about the security system that you will install. Can it really protect your family and home? Think about it! Do not just pick any type of security system; you must investigate if it can really give you the security you need. ->Odessa Hanton

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  18. I think surveillance should be focused on the more public locations of the house (e.g., the living room or the hallway leading from the main door), or if possible just on the possible entry points of robbers. Putting one around the house just seems wasteful and unnecessary for the most part.

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