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Someone Is Watching What You’re Doing (But You May Not Know About It)

Video Over The Internet — All About Network Cameras

A typical network camera installed on ceilings (Source D-LINK)

I remember the first time I became aware of cameras at the grocery or local department store. I briefly looked up at the ceiling and noticed something else was there besides the lights. There were objects in a spherical black dome, installed around every corner of the store. During that time I didn’t like the idea of cameras all around. Now I realize that there are other uses for cameras in public places … surveillance.

Check this out. You can view what is going on in some places on the Internet.

This website lets you see from a webcam in Huntington Beach.
Inside of a bar with a webcam.
Las Vegas Sign has a public webcam.

What Are Network Cameras?

Network cameras, also called Internet Cameras, Webcams (like the ones used for online sex) or IP Camera are a huge market. There are different types with different purposes, but they are all devices that allow recording or filming of video over the Internet. They have become easier to install thanks to the availability of Wi-Fi and broadband Internet connections. Wi-Fi allows anyone to install the camera over the network without having to wire it to any sort of device to get Internet. Broadband Internet allows faster video which means users can stream it in real time from anywhere that has Internet. The main concern now is privacy since these cameras don’t necessarily require any disclosure to record. Bad actors can also install them to spy on others and that can be terrible for privacy.

Most network cameras installed are actually used for official purposes. The city uses it to help in law enforcement and traffic. Places like airports and offices use it for security. Establishments like restaurants, bars and stores use them to promote their business. Nursing homes have them to allow the staff to monitor their residents. The rest of the installations are in private homes, and that can be a concern.

Network cameras like this are used to monitor city streets and traffic.

They’re Everywhere

Just about anywhere you go today, there are cameras all around. Even street corners, traffic lights and not just private but public places as well. Parks, parking lots, alley ways have cameras. They are also installed in schools, public libraries, shopping malls and even apartment hallways. It appears that it is for security purposes, to deter thieves and criminals. It can also be used for investigating people and verifying their whereabouts when used as evidence in court cases. We’ve seen clips of how they proved someone of a crime based on video evidence. On the news, police body cameras show whether there was any misconduct on the part of the law enforcer.

As more people and businesses install cameras, more video is being recorded of people in their everyday life. Before it used to be just the government that required cameras for surveillance and security purposes. Now anyone can go to the store and buy a security camera for their safety. Camera systems for home and business use started as CCTV solutions, but they were not originally connected to the Internet. Now cameras are simpler to install thanks to the Internet and the emergence of network cameras. These cameras are a part of the IoT class of devices that have Internet connectivity built in. Other features that make these cameras stand apart from other cameras are intelligent software that make use of AI and machine learning.

People can watch everything on their network camera from work, vacation and even when traveling to another country. All they need is their smartphone or computer with Internet access. This means that someone, somewhere could be watching what you are doing right now if there is a camera near you. It is not just public places where people are being watched, it can be installed in the most unlikely places. This intrudes upon privacy, something that seems to have gone out the door in the Information Age.

Not only is our data being collected on the Internet, but even our images and things we do in public could be gathered and put under scrutiny. This makes it harder now to deny stealing items from a store because there will be a camera somewhere in that store that would have recorded the act. Cameras are also allowing anti-theft measures in large retail outlets track inventory much better, because they can now see what is happening inside. There was once a time where only banks and large companies had camera installations. Now it is becoming more of a necessity for guarding the home and property, but at the same time it also affects our privacy.

Invasion Of Privacy

The main issue here is that many people are not comfortable that they are being recorded on video. Even in private places, but mostly public places. Airports, train stations, government offices and military installations have cameras. You go to the gas station, the mall, your office and even the city library and there is a chance a camera has recorded you. At public events like concerts and festivals, the audience is reminded that they are being filmed. There is really not much one can do to conceal themselves since no one knows where all the cameras are located. The only safe space we have for privacy appears to be our home. Or is it?

At home, users can still expose themselves unknowingly. Devices like smartphone cameras, laptop cameras, webcams and other network cameras can reveal details. They may also be watching without the user knowing. It has been reported that some apps that are now considered malware can turn the smartphone’s camera and microphone settings on. If you really want to be sure no one is watching, disable the camera or turn it off when not really needed. Some users use a camera blocking device or a simple one … tape to cover the lens. This can all be inconvenient though so what is the best solution?

Tape should help (Photo Source: The Guardian)

Avoid going to websites that are suspicious since they are breeding grounds for malware. Don’t install apps that require access to your phone or camera settings, unless you know its legit (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, etc.). There is only so much to suggest, so it is best to make sure people understand how network cameras work.

Network Camera Basics

The typical network camera consists of the following:

  1. Camera Body — The enclosure for the advanced electronics and firmware that controls and gives function to the camera. It also houses the electronic sensor that captures images while there is a storage system inside the camera that saves the recorded video. The power unit is also contained within the camera body, containing the circuitry to power the camera. Some cameras use rechargeable batteries if they don’t have a power unit. Most high-end surveillance camera systems have power units, while smaller web or Internet camera products can have rechargeable batteries.
  2. Lens — Like any camera, there is a lens that is attached to the camera body. It is the lens that helps to capture the light and image. The lens has its own autofocus settings and is capable of adjusting it. Some cameras allow the operator to remotely control the movement of the camera lens to zoom in and focus.
  3. Mounting Unit — Some network cameras come with a complete set of mounting brackets to allow proper camera placement on a ceiling or wall. This helps, but otherwise there are third party kits available too. This includes screws and other accessories.
  4. Wiring — The only set of wiring that come with network cameras are for the power unit and network cable (UTP CAT6 and higher). The network cable is used for cameras that have an ethernet port which connects them to the Internet. Otherwise, a Wi-Fi based camera is the best solution for home use. Some network cameras that need to be hooked up to an audio or monitoring system will come with specialized cables.
This diagram shows how a network camera works over the Internet.

Configuration Issues

Configuring the network camera requires assigning an IP address to the unit and then opening up a web interface from another computer to access the configuration settings. Vendors may require users to plug in the camera to an ethernet port first to allow direct access to the unit. From there, users can assign an IP address and make it accessible via an HTTP link from a web browser. This is not too hard to do if the vendor’s instruction manual is followed for the network camera.

Perhaps the most important setting to a network camera is the IP address. Normally, people often just use their Wi-Fi or home Internet connection to assign an IP address automatically to their camera. However, it is better to assign a static IP address so that it can sit behind a firewall with an open port that listens to requests from the outside. This is called port forwarding, and it is configured on the firewall. This maps the camera’s local IP address to an Internet IP address. The Internet IP address is provided by the ISP (Internet Service Provider) which is the company that installed the Internet service. They should be consulted further for more clarification on how to setup port forwarding. This is what allow users to access their camera remotely.

That is actually also a security concern. Most people are not aware that opening a port on their firewall/router allows access to the device to everyone on the Internet, not just the user. This is how certain network cameras get hacked easily. Another problem is that users neglect to change the default password on the settings, so a hacker who manages to get in can just launch what is called a dictionary attack to guess the password. Unfortunately many network cameras use HTTP which is very highly insecure and not even recommended for access on the Internet. Instead, keep the settings page from being accessed over the Internet (unless you are a cybersecurity guru who can configure it for HTTPS, but that still makes it accessible from the outside). Only allow port forwarding for the camera to stream recorded video. Users can then go to a special website to view what the camera has recorded.

Change the default password, lockdown the settings page and always apply updates from the vendor. Updates are important because this is the software that patches up bugs and other vulnerabilities in the system. There is never a full guarantee that the camera is hack-proof, but at least if measures are taken to minimize those dangers that would be best practice.

Antivirus And Security Software

There are now antivirus and security software that protect IoT products, including network cameras. The firewall is the just a first line of defense from anything coming from the Internet. A next layer would be an antivirus or security software product that can help protect the network camera. These products protect the camera by monitoring its ports to identify intrusions and detect anomalies that could be an attack. Threat management systems can help detect attacks and also prevent one if is happening.

The Mirai malware is an example of the dangers devices like network cameras pose when hacked. Mirai targets these devices to become part of a greater bot network, which are controlled by hackers. These devices then help to attack other networks that can cause what are called DDOS (Distributed Denial-of-Service), which are a form of cyberattack. There could be millions of these devices and they cause disruptions that can affect online transactions, downloads and streaming services. Imagine billions of these devices, now that is a major catastrophe that can shutdown parts of the Internet.

Mass Surveillance

It seems privacy does not really exist anymore with all the cameras around us. Some countries will use video for mass surveillance, but in the US there are groups that will fight to prevent this. It is a violation of human rights to privacy. The fear of “Big Brother” just became real. Once you step out on the street, your actions can be recorded and there is no way of knowing how long it is being stored.

One reason for mass surveillance is for a fully functional national facial recognition system. Such systems would be able to identify citizens based on their facial characteristics. The iPhone X series first introduced an advanced form of this called Face ID. With high resolution network cameras, software with AI functions can begin to identify people on streets. For law enforcement this can be helpful in identifying criminals. It can also cut the other way and really violate people’s right to remain anonymous, but it seems more likely that won’t last very long with the way intelligent systems are being deployed.

The Good And The Bad

One thing is for sure, there is no one person watching what someone else is doing 24/7/365. That would be probably the hardest job in the world. Instead, mass surveillance systems are interested in seeing how crowds are behaving. This allows governments to also be prepared for crowd control. It is perhaps the modern phenomenon we call traffic that is a reason many cameras are installed along main streets and highways. Monitoring traffic allows better ways to manage it as well.

State sponsored spying through video using network cameras, is scary enough to even think about. There are also individuals who lurk in the shadows of public restrooms, fitting rooms, hotel rooms and gyms trying to record people in their most vulnerable moments. These bad actors can also gain access to webcams that are vulnerable to attack because of irresponsible users who fail to secure them. Many bad actors who have attacked network cameras use recorded video online to sell to smut websites or even just to get viral.

The good news is companies that have regulations do delete their recorded video, and archive them somewhere if need be. Others follow a cycle of deleting old videos after 2 weeks, it really depends on their policy. The enactment of laws like GDPR are also in the interest of the people to prevent companies from using data, including recorded video for purposes that have not been disclosed or approved by law. Use of any individual’s data without consent is against the law. Therefore, no company or individual can collect your video from a network camera for commercial purposes unless it has been approved. Unfortunately it would be harder to go after people who do this for their own personal reasons.

Finally, it is best to be aware that cameras are everywhere and you are being watched. Everyone can help secure network cameras to avoid invasion of privacy and cyberattacks. Update the camera’s latest software, install security software and don’t keep the default settings. Keep your camera private to yourself, friends and family. Don’t make it publicly viewable unless you really want to. Perhaps it is best to not install a network camera if you don’t know how to do it properly. Ask local tech or the store for technical support. For those who actually operate a public webcam, it should also not be installed in places where it can violate the public’s right to privacy (e.g. restrooms, bedrooms, lounges, etc.).



Essays and articles about interacting with modern devices and how they work.

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Vincent Tabora

Editor HD-PRO, DevOps, Cybersecurity, Blockchain, Software Development, Engineering, Photography, Technology