Police, camera, action: How smart security systems can make you safer

Why the smart home has huge potential in the fight against crime

Smart security cameras tend to occupy the less sexy end of the smart home gadget spectrum, no matter how wireless or motion-sensing they claim to be.

They're the tech equivalent of life insurance. Why spend on a device that might come in useful if your home gets robbed when you could splash out on an Apple Watch or mind-melting VR headset instead?

Essential round-up: Best smart home security systems

The trouble is for many, the benefits of a home security system aren't clear. Will they help prevent a burglary? And what if the crim just steals the camera? We decided find out:

"The Metropolitan Police Service has made the use of CCTV a forensic discipline, so that it is subject to the same controls and professional approach as fingerprints and DNA," a spokesperson from London's police force told Wareable.

The Met identified 5,000 suspects through the use of CCTV alone in 2013/2014 with total video evidence of this kind regarded as "useful" in over 10,000 cases. In fact, they consider it so important that this "forensic" approach has resulted in the creation of a division of so-called Super-recogniser officers with specially trained memory skills that apparently put them in the top one percent of the population for recalling names, faces and offender details.

These mega brains sift through hours of camera footage looking for disorder suspects and it was these Super-recognisers that were responsible for many of the arrests following the London riots.

High profile success stories

The most recent high profile success story was through the tragic case of the murder of Chris Foster - a City worker who was stabbed outside a crowded pub in South London in a case of mistaken identity. Using 29 different sources of CCTV cameras - including those of local businesses, local authorities, supermarkets, a college, a gym, a bank and a number of pubs - the Met was able to piece together 568 clips to ascertain the number of people involved and the roles they played in the run up to and following the attack.

According to research by the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) there are up to six million CCTV cameras in operation in Britain. While the vast majority of those are street cameras or belonging to private business, domestic CCTV - although a "small percentage contributor of the images" that the Met receives - is very much on the rise, and it's certainly one of the few lines of home defence that the police recommends.

"One of the aims of designing the environment to prevent crime happening is to slow down an offender or increase the risk of them being caught," explained a Met spokesperson. "If CCTV is installed, it should be clearly visible in order to maximise the visual deterrent of the cameras, alerting offenders before they commit a crime to the fact that they will be identified and convicted if they do."

True detective

The value of security footage as a deterrent in a domestic situation, though, is questionable. While highly visible CCTV rigs may keep the public in line on a Saturday night, most burglaries are opportunistic and perpetrators rarely stop to look for cameras in the experience of Eddie Tang, partner at IBB Solicitors and expert in criminal law.

"You'll find that most burglars don't know when there's CCTV on the property. Most of the time, they're quite shocked when they're shown the footage. They tend to do things without thinking about the full consequences of it; not in all cases but most."

"What's quite common is that they put socks over their hands to stop themselves leaving DNA and usually they're wearing a hood or a hat."

Unaware that they're on tape, even with these measures, they can still give away plenty with which to catch them, though.

"CCTV can be very, very useful; it can identify body size and clothing," enthused Tang. "Even if they were to wear some form of disguise, such as a balaclava, of course, it's very much harder to identify them but you'll still have their body shape. The police will then look at the home address, if anyone's arrested, to see if the clothing there matches the footage too."

"The reality is that if you have CCTV at home, it can make a difference. If, however, you have a burglar who's standard size, is fully clothed, doesn't leave any DNA behind and doesn't show his face, it's going to be very hard to identify them."

How to turn footage into evidence

All the same, according to Tang, it's becoming much more regular to see home security video evidence used in court in cases of burglary. All that's required to make it admissible is that you hand it over to the police who will make sure that it's marked and distributed to all parties involved in the proper manner. It's almost impossible to get it thrown out of court and, at its worst, might be something that the prosecution doesn't entirely rely upon to make its case. So, what are the keys to effectively using a home security camera, then?

"One is the content; what does it actually show, does it show the incident, does it show that this person has done this? It depends what offence you're looking at but if you've got footage of someone in your address and they steal something, then burglary, no problem. But you might have a camera on the outside of your house and a recording of someone jumping over the garden fence. What they're actually doing is trespassing and while it wouldn't be direct evidence of burglary, it would still be compelling to show that they were there at time, plus they might well have been found with the proceeds too.

"Number two is the resolution. Sometimes it's black and white, and sometimes it's colour. Clearly the colour ones are better and the quality makes a difference because you can get HD CCTV now. It's much, much clearer. I've had a case where the resolution wasn't good and we tried to do facial mapping but, even after that, even the expert said that you couldn't say for sure."

Again, though, the take-home message from the judicial end of the law is that home security cameras are definitely a good idea if you live anywhere near a burglary or domestic crime hotspot.

"More often than not there's a conviction when there's CCTV," confirmed Tang, with himself a proponent of the tech to the point where he has a system installed at his own home.

"I think it's becoming more of a deterrent. It' a new phenomenon as opposed to the street cameras which have been there for 10-20 years. For homes, it's much more recent. Also, the price has gone down which makes it much more compelling."

Buy the best system

The systems on the market at the moment range from small IP-connected wireless units - designed for both internal and external use - to the more sophisticated indoor type which will sit on your sideboard and watch out for everything from visuals to changes in humidity and temperature. Ultimately, how effective they are is down to a few important areas according to our experts, then.

Make sure you buy something that shoots in HD and something that sends recordings up to the cloud to avoid the unit itself getting stolen and all the evidence along with it. Infra-red technology is important for a clear look when all is dark and do consider where you might position them as well.

Look out for obvious entry and exit points or rooms which intruders would have to pass through, and do remember that cameras placed outside might well provide as a deterrent which is probably the best case scenario when it comes down to it.

If catching the crooks in the act and safeguarding your stuff is what's of paramount importance, then also opting for a system that will send live alerts of motion-sensing would be a smart move. And make sure that your mobile device at the other end is somewhere that you'll notice it.

Of course, as good as they apparently are, a home security camera is not necessarily the be all and end all.

"CCTV should be regarded only as one element within a complete security package," warned the Met. "We strongly advise homeowners to firstly invest in good quality doors and windows and an intruder alarm system. However, where the specific crime risk dictates, a home security camera can compliment these measures as part of an overall security package."

Finally, if you're not sold on these smart home device, then it's well worth noting that a home security system will decrease your house insurance premium. In other words, it will pay for itself. So. Convinced?


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