A few months ago I had the misfortune of experiencing an invasive burglary. I was very lucky that I only lost a 2008 era iPod and $100. It was immediately pretty clear that they were specifically targeting very light items, as they passed over a Macbook Pro and a collection of camera lenses. In actuality, the most distressing part of the experience was coming home to the contents of my cigar humidor upended in the middle of the floor.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the first time this house has been burgled, but it has been the first time it’s happened since I moved in. From what I’ve heard from my roommates, after every incident the external security of the house has been improved, but they keep managing to find the next weak spots. They’re annoyingly persistent. Mulling over this problem, I started to think about access elevation, and treating my home security in the same way I would digital security - in layers.

I started by prioritizing the rooms of my house based on their security requirements. My bedroom contains my workstation and home electronics lab, and my two roommates keep their valuables in their room as well. These rooms need to be the most secure. The rest of the house is furnished, but doesn’t hold many expensive items. Thus, the central hallway connecting our rooms makes for a great buffer between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ security sections of the house. If burglars are going to get in, I’d at least like to see who it is, so I decided to put up some security cameras. Before I talk about the specifics of my security system, lets talk a little bit about how CCTV works in general.

The term CCTV is actually a bit confusing. It traditionally stands for Closed Circuit Television, and that’s how a large number of security setups operate. It’s the classic CCTV configuration. A video signal is sent along a coaxial BNC terminated cable to a central system which interprets the video signals, digitizes and stores it. There are a couple different configurations available to consumers, from all in one DVR devices to add-on cards for standard PCs. You’re limited by the number of inputs on this input unit, with a common number being four or eight. A four camera setup with a DVR set top box will set you back a little over $500. This is a centralized security system.

These systems can be quite involved physically to get up and running, as you need to run both power and coaxial lines to every camera you want to install. They can also be more expensive and have a single point of failure. However, these systems are still relatively popular and you can purchase one from any number of retailers.

With the proliferation of wireless devices around the home, a new type of security camera has emerged - the wireless IP camera. If you have a spare computer to use as a DVR, these devices are much cheaper in terms of initial investment and offer some cool perks.

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An IP Camera based system is considered a decentralized security system. These units are smart little devices, and $80 should get you a Wifi enabled model with up to 300 degrees of panning range. They do their own digitizing, and many of them export their footage to a moving JPEG (MJPEG) served over HTTP. After configuring your IP camera to connect to your wireless network, you only need to run power to them.

You can log in directly to the camera at its local network address to change its internal settings or pan and tilt it around. This distributes responsibility off of the central server, leaving it to focus on just motion detection and storage. Given the networked nature of the cameras, you can run as many as your server can handle processing. Also, in the case of a server outage, you can still view individual camera feeds, something that isn’t possible with a coaxial system.

The downside to an IP camera system is that there’s a lot more networking involved. That isn’t to say coaxial systems are simpler, because they bring their own complexities, but IP cameras may not be the best choice if you just want to purchase a full solution you can physically mount, plug in and flip on.

As for my specific setup, I put a good amount of thought into what would be easiest to incorporate into my existing home network. I already run a Debian server at home, which puts Linux support high on my list of requirements - I need this same computer to monitor and record from my new cameras. I found ZoneMinder, which is a great open source project for running a CCTV system and was pretty easy to install. I looked through their hardware compatibility list and found Foscam makes an affordable wireless pan/tilt security camera, the Foscam FI8918W. I purchased two of them from Amazon and got to work mounting them on the ceiling. Strategically placed, the combined coverage of both their infrared LEDs completely light up the hallway on the feeds.

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After connecting the cameras to my wireless I issued two static DHCP leases using their MAC addresses. I use DD-WRT on my router at home, which made it pretty easy. Zoneminder needs an install of PHP and MySQL because it’s a full fledged web application, but they have pretty good instructions over at the wiki.

Configuring Zoneminder takes a few more steps. First is adding the cameras by the static IPs I leased in the router, and setting up the storage path. After that, there are a couple ways Zoneminder can record. If you need 24/7 recording, you can select “record” for each device. I wanted to record when movement is detected, which is the “modect” option. There are a lot of ways Zoneminder can work, and if you’re curious you should read the tutorial. This configuration has given me a very hands off system. It automatically logs events based on movement, and I can log in and review them on a timeline.

Of course, a CCTV setup definitely isn’t a silver bullet, and this is only one piece of the puzzle when talking about a more secure home. However, a system like this is a good way to start down the path of home surveillance and possibly home automation. It’s definitely given me some peace of mind. I’ve purposefully written this post as an overview, because there’s really great documentation over at the Zoneminder site if you want to get something similar up and running.