Run your own NSA with apps that turn iOS devices into spy cams

iOS Cameras: Security Apps

Odds are, sometimes you wish you could check in on what’s happening around your home from your phone. Problem is, unless you regularly take a dip in your Scrooge McDuck money pool, decent remote-viewable camera technology is still an unaffordable luxury for most. It’s a premium feature for many alarm companies, even though the tech behind it is pretty old, and the prices on warehouse-store offerings can be steep. People Power’s Presence and Appologics’ Airbeam apps serve roughly the same purpose: repurposing iOS devices you already own into always-connected cameras that you can check in with anywhere. While similar on the surface, the underpinnings of the two apps are very different. We’ll shed some light on why this matters so you can decide which is right for you.

Both Airbeam and Presence share a common set of basic features. Each allows you to turn an old iPhone, iPad, or even a camera-equipped iPod Touch into a small surveillance camera, with audio and robust motion detection capabilities. Both support email notification of motion events as they occur, and live camera video and audio streams can be monitored from another iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Both offer a dirt-simple initial setup that consists of little more than installing and running an app on two devices. Most importantly, both do a fine job with these basic features. The video responsiveness and quality is nearly identical. Presence is a free app, supported by a built-in marketplace for Presence-compatible gadgets, while Airbeam is a very reasonable $3.99 (and also has a MacOS version available).

Initial Setup and Configuration

Airbeam is deceptively simple to get started with; run the app on the camera device and tap Camera, then run it on the monitor device. It will automatically detect all cameras on the local network, and start displaying thumbnail video streams from them, as well as running a tiny web server that you can point any browser in the house at to watch video. If you just want to watch cameras in your home, while you’re home, you’re all set. However, if you want to be able to watch a camera while you’re not at home, or get email alerts when movement is detected, there’s more to do (and security issues to understand). More on that later.

Presence is nearly as simple to get up and running. The first time you run the Presence app, you’ll need to provide an email address and password to create an account, then enable the local device’s camera. On other devices, just log in with the same email address and password, and the stream from any running camera in your account will be available at a tap. Unlike Airbeam, no further configuration is required to monitor cameras in your home from anywhere there’s a decent internet connection.

Remote Viewing

Presence’s no-configuration-required remote viewing is made possible by a cloud relay: a central server that acts as a coordinator between cameras and monitors. When a monitor request is made from another device that’s logged into your account, the camera video is securely streamed to the central server and out to your phone or iPad. Assuming you trust People Power not to snoop on your video streams passing through their servers, this is a very safe, secure, and simple way to get remote video monitoring. Presence also supports a basic two-way communication feature; just tap the camera icon while watching a stream, and both ends go FaceTime-style to let you holler at the dog or calm your kid’s meltdown without a trip home. Another tap sends you back to normal camera viewing mode. Presence doesn’t have any official way to share a camera stream with a friend, but you could always give someone your login and password in a pinch.

Unless you regularly take a dip in your Scrooge McDuck money pool, decent remote viewable camera tech is an unaffordable luxury.

In contrast, enabling Airbeam’s remote viewing capabilities is more like loading a gun and aiming carefully to avoid your foot. Without a central server to coordinate everything, you’re responsible to configure (and secure) remote camera viewing via your home internet connection’s IP address. Appologics have made the process fairly simple; assuming you have a router with Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) or Apple’s similar NAT-PMP technology enabled, it will handle all the port forwarding configuration on the router automatically. The scary part about exposing the Airbeam camera app to the internet is that the default settings don’t require a password to view the video stream.

While convenient for sharing (anyone can view the camera if you give them the address), it’s also insecure, especially if the camera or microphone might pick up something sensitive. Anyone who guesses the right IP address and port could view your camera in a browser, and trigger and download video and audio recordings remotely. Hackers routinely scan home broadband providers for open ports, so this isn’t as far-fetched a possibility as you might think. There is a password-protection option, but it’s a ways below the option to enable remote viewing; we missed it entirely when setting up the camera on an iPhone.

Having a password set made video viewing much jerkier on our test setup. Also, even with a password set, we’d recommend avoiding Airbeam’s browser-based camera monitoring in public places with open WiFi (stick to the app). The password in the browser viewer is sent unencrypted over the internet, letting every script kiddie nearby know both the camera address and how to get in.

Should you decide to go for it, first set a password, then flip the Port Triggering switch under Settings on the camera device. This will expose the camera’s webserver to the internet and display a green cloud icon you can tap to get the public IP address and port, which you’ll enter into any devices you wish to monitor the camera from remotely (app or browser). The IP address on most home broadband connections is subject to change at any time, so Appologics recommends the use of a dynamic DNS service to give you a stable hostname to connect to the camera. It’s easier to remember a hostname than an IP address, and you’ll get plenty of practice, since remote cameras are forgotten when the app starts (you’ll have to enter it every time). On the plus side, Airbeam an array of useful options that allow you to tweak the video quality and other settings to accommodate for very low or very high-speed networks.

Ultimately, the lack of a cloud relay to manage the many details can make Airbeam’s remote viewing configuration much more complex (and easy to lose a metaphorical toe if you mess up on security).

Notifications

Because of Presence’s central server, getting email notifications of motion events is a snap – just flip the motion detection switch on a camera, and you’ll receive an email alert with a few seconds of Quicktime video each time a movement event occurs. The email is sent directly from the Presence server, with no additional configuration required. Presence also has a Home/Away switch and time-based rules that can enable or disable motion detection for a camera. On the downside, the motion detection thresholds aren’t tunable, so it’s easy to get a lot of false notifications.

iOS security cams Airbeam Sneaky Kids

Configuring email notifications in Airbeam is more complex; again, mostly due to the lack of a central server. You’ll need to configure the camera device with the SMTP server address, username and password for your email provider; the email notification will come from your own address instead of from Airbeam. Snapshots and Quicktime video can be attached to the email notification as well. However, it doesn’t seem to limit the length of the video segments, so it’s very easy to clog up an email inbox with large videos if you’ve selected high quality recording. Motion detection thresholds are tunable in Airbeam, so it’s easy to work around funky shadows and other false alarm-triggering issues.

Event Recording

Presence does not offer any event recording, beyond the few second snippets that are automatically attached to a motion detection email notification. This is probably the most significant shortcoming of the Presence app; we really wish it supported local storage and cloud-based streaming of recordings.

iOS security cams Air Beam Browser

Airbeam offers more robust event recording capabilities. Both video-motion and audio-triggered events can be automatically recorded and stored on the camera device by enabling the motion-detection feature (on the camera or remotely); recordings can also be manually initiated by a remote monitoring device (again, stored on the camera for later review). Airbeam has a way to automatically transmit recordings to a monitoring device while they’re being made, but we didn’t have very good luck with that feature, even on a fast local WiFi network. Strangely, it doesn’t appear that previous recordings can be reviewed remotely from the Airbeam app. The most useful way (short of checking the camera device when you get home) seems to be via a Quicktime-enabled web browser. After connecting and hitting the Recordings button, a time-stamped list of event videos is shown, from which recordings can be downloaded individually for local viewing (but again, watch out for that unencrypted password on public WiFi!).

Why Not?

It turns out there are good reasons for dedicated hardware to do real video monitoring. While Apple’s cameras provide decent quality, they don’t (yet) do night-vision, a standard feature on even the cheapest video baby monitors and warehouse store security camera packages. With limited on-device event recording, the likelihood is low that you’ll catch something useful in the event of a burglary – and even lower if the burglar in question decides to burgle innocuous-looking iPhone 3GS that’s recording him. Getting useful camera angles can be a challenge, too: most docks weren’t designed for angle adjustment, so you may have to get clever with stuffing things underneath or rigging up other kinds of device mounts to catch the action you’re looking for. Presence makes camera angles even more difficult, since the video always takes a landscape orientation, regardless of the placement of the device. If you use a portrait-mode dock with Presence, be ready for a crick in your neck when watching video. Their in-app market does offer a wide range of mounting solutions, which currently seems to be their only source of revenue, since the app is free.

Conclusions

After spending some time with both, neither Presence nor Airbeam is going to replace a real motion-detecting remote video system. That said, most of us don’t need that; a quick nanny-cam setup to keep tabs on a new babysitter or figure out which dog’s been making lunch of your shoes will do. Both Presence and Airbeam are a good fit for casual in-house video monitoring of an infant, pets, or kids. If you’re looking to get up and running quickly for remote viewing with a minimum of hassle, we’d have to give the edge to Presence. It’s a solid offering, though missing some of Airbeam’s recording features and flexibility. If you need event recording, or more granular configuration, and are willing to overlook the more complex remote setup, Airbeam might be a better fit for you. We’d love to see more recording capabilities in Presence, and browser encryption in Airbeam – and better night vision capabilities on both – at which point we could wholeheartedly recommend either.

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