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How to buy DIY home alarm and security systems

While cybercrime is growing, and grabbing most of the headlines recently, physical crime hasn’t gone away. Over 2 million homes and apartments in the USA are broken into each year. The price isn’t just whatever is stolen, but is also the emotional cost of both sentimental items and the sense of violation. With the growth of credit card fraud and identity theft, burglary can also lead to cybercrime. In one recent case, a homeowner’s credit card was used by the thieves within minutes after the break-in.

A security system is one of the best lines of defense in protecting your home. There are many well-known options for turn-key, monitored alarm systems that come with a professional installer and a monthly fee. Being ExtremeTech, we’ll skip past those and talk about some options for rolling your own.

DIY home security systems let you monitor your home from your phone wherever you areDIY security systems either start with a focus on security itself, like iSmartAlarm and SimpliSafe, or start as home automation products and add on security functionality, like Samsung’s SmartThings. Each company tends to have a unique pitch, so scrolling through their product listing will help give you a sense of which one will be best for you. For example, iSmartAlarm has really focused on internet-connected cameras. I’ve been a customer since they were a KickStarter project, and their iCamera KEEP and Spot are both clever ways of keeping an eye on your home without monthly fees. However, they are far behind on delivering many of their promised product line extensions, so for now you’re limited to motion and contact sensors to complement cameras.

SimpliSafe has taken a nearly opposite approach. It has a broad line up of sensors — including freeze, water, smoke, and carbon monoxide — and security features, but no cameras (and have put their first promised camera on indefinite hold). Being able to “look in” via a camera when a sensor is triggered is incredibly useful, as otherwise if you are traveling, it is hard to know how panicked to be about an alert. I also like that SimpliSafe uses Lithium Ion batteries for its sensors, giving them an estimated five-year lifespan. The button batteries used in my iSmartAlarm contact sensors seem to go out at least once a year.

Both iSmartAlarm and SimpliSafe provide mostly closed systems. They are purpose-built for security and are not general purpose home automation systems — although we have been able to teach our Amazon Echo to let us control iSmartAlarm using voice activation. If instead you really want a full home automation system with security features, Samsung’s SmartThings may be right for you. It takes more work to set up, but Samsung’s hub supports both Zigbee and Z-Wave in addition to the more typical IP interface. Samsung has also built a large collection of compatible products sold by partners, so you’ll have the most flexibility over time.

One unavoidable downside to wireless security systems is that, like just about everything else in the IoT, they can be hacked. As a practical matter most of those hacks — like the one SimpliSafe is supposedly vulnerable to — require a level of dedication and sophistication beyond that of most criminals, but it is something to keep in mind. Make sure and keep your system up to date with security patches as they are released.

LiveWatch includes an Android tablet with their inexpensive bundels, but charges a hefty monthly monitoring fee so you pay for it in the endTraditional alarm companies like ADT require that they install your system, at least partially, so they know what they are monitoring and can stand behind it. However, installing your own system doesn’t mean it can’t be professionally monitored. LiveWatch, for example, lets you save money by installing your own system, but then will monitor it for a subscription fee that starts at $35/month. SimpliSafe also offers optional monitoring, starting at $15/month and rising to $25/month if you want to also use their mobile app and web portal.

At this point, we need to at least mention the issue of privacy and data sharing. All of these systems rely to one degree or another on the cloud, and all of them pass at least some of your data — for example when you leave and return home — through their servers. Most of us are willing to live with that, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The first goal of a good security system is to deter criminals from even trying to break in. To that end, make sure and advertise that you’ve got cameras and or alarms. As both an additional deterrent, and to help track down thieves after the fact, you may want to add a more extensive video monitoring system, separate from the minimal amount provided by your security system vendor. To get you started on that, we’ve provided a companion overview of DIY home video monitoring.

Use signs to advertise your use of security technology as a deterrentIf you do install additional outdoor cameras, you may want to hide some of them so that it isn’t obvious to a potential thief how they can work around or disable them. But even so, it’s much better to have visible deterrents prevent a crime than to have the consolation prize of a video record of a theft. If you do have visible cameras, you may want to make sure that they are recording to a separate location, so that simply removing the camera or its SD card won’t be enough for a criminal to erase the record of your actions.

The dark secret of any so-called Internet of Things solution is that they all require some amount of attention on a regular basis. For starters, all truly wireless devices need to have their batteries checked and replaced as needed. Those that are hard-wired for power, but use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for connectivity, can lose their connection and need to be reset or reconfigured.

Most devices will also require firmware updates. In some cases, those aren’t optional. For example, iSmartAlarm pushed an update to our Hub, and it meant I couldn’t use the cameras any more until I updated the firmware on each of them.

For many, the loss of a phone or computer is less painful than the loss of what they contain. There are some simple steps you can take to minimize the downside of having your favorite mobile or other computing devices ripped off. First, make sure everything you care about is backed up — either to the cloud, or at least to another device that is located somewhere unlikely to be found by thieves. That includes photos, videos, financial records, and so on.

Second, secure your devices to make it less likely that someone who steals them can use them to steal from you electronically, or steal your identity. Encrypting your hard drive, requiring a password on resume from sleep, and activating your phone’s Find My Phone feature are all excellent tactics. Similarly, a walk-through video of everything visible in your house or business will help you quickly notice what is missing, and provide some documentation for helping you file insurance claims.

Whichever system you install, pay attention to its message logs to make sure it isn’t trying to warn you about offline sensors or rundown batteries. You don’t want to find out that a sensor wasn’t working by having someone break in.

Now read: How to get started with DIY home surveillance systems

In time for Black Hat and DEFCON, we’re covering security, cyberwar, and online crime all this week; check out the rest of our Security Week stories for more in-depth coverage.

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