Lori Prichard reporting
Produced by Kelly Just
SALT LAKE CITY -- There are things in life we need to keep a close eye on: our businesses, homes and families. But if you rely on a wireless camera system to provide an extra level of security, you might instead be opening yourself up to more crime.
A KSL 5 News investigation reveals a shocking twist that comes with some of these affordable and easy-to-install wireless camera systems.
"It was kind of scary to know that anyone could see what is going on," mother Erica Patten said when KSL showed her the image being transmitted by her video baby monitor.
"Especially in your child's room?" reporter Lori Prichard added.
"Right," Patten said.
Spying on people's wireless camera signals is relatively easy.
As security consultant Shane Larsen explained, "With a simple device, maybe $100 to $200 at the most, you can go around town and look at people's wireless cameras, and they have no idea that you're doing it."
By using two devices -- a simple receiver bought off the Internet for $49.95 and a more sophisticated "wireless camera hunter" that sells for about $450 -- KSL was able to look inside homes and businesses throughout the valley. The "hunter" device beeped periodically to indicate the presence of a video signal.
Before looking at any images, KSL got permission to lock onto the signal and take a peek. That required knocking on doors to inquire if the home or business owners had a wireless camera running and if they might allow KSL try hacking into it.
"Oh, that's your cash register," observed Prichard to restaurant owner Yaser Nisar.
"Yeah it is," said Nisar. "Yep, oh wow!"
"A little disturbing?" asked Prichard.
"Yeah, it's kind of scary that people can see that."
"That is your house," said Prichard to father Chris Patten, as the two watched his daughter play in her bedroom while standing outside the house.
"Yeah, I don't like that very much," he replied.
"That's my jewelry display," said another store owner. "That's that camera. Maybe I should unplug it."
"Unplug it," said Prichard.
All the cameras KSL tapped into were wireless, transmitting unencrypted analog signals on public frequencies that anyone can intercept.
According to Larsen, "It (the camera) sees a picture. It transmits it to the receiver. It works fine. The problem is you can grab it when it's being transmitted from point A to point B."
The idea that someone from the outside could be looking in surprised nearly every home and business owner KSL spoke to.
Chris and Erica Patten use a video baby monitor to keep an eye on their little girl, Ivy. They were shocked to learn that KSL could also see Ivy in her bedroom while standing outside the couple's home.
"Never would I think that someone would be able to see through what we have in our house through the monitor," Erica said.
"I think we'll definitely consider not using it," Chris added.
Restaurant owner Yaser Nisar had his wireless camera pointed directly at his cash register so he could see if anything happened while he was away. He said it never occurred to him that someone else could have been monitoring that same view.
"If you guys hadn't come along, I probably wouldn't have noticed," Nisar said.
"Better us than criminals," said Prichard.
"Yeah, exactly," he said.
Nisar went on to say, "If you had your cameras pointed at your security codes or anything like that, someone could be watching your security codes, and they can just come in later and do whatever they please. So yeah, it's really disturbing to see that."
Not everyone believed their cameras were safe. Homeowner John Coles said he figured someone could steal the signal, so he took precautions and put the cameras only on the outside of his home.
"I wasn't warned about it, but I had ideas that could be done, and that's why I wanted it outside, not in," he said.
The wireless camera systems KSL tapped into were all pretty cheap, purchased from big-box retailers.
Security consultant Shane Larsen said these wireless cameras work well and can serve a purpose, like keeping an eye on a front door or backyard. But when it comes to providing actual security, Larsen said people need to understand it is possible for others to access their video.
"You can get a nicer wireless system that will encrypt what you're sending over the airwaves," Larsen said.
Not surprisingly, nicer means spending more money. Encrypting a wireless video signal can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars more.
Larsen suggested something he says will cost more than the cameras KSL tapped into, but not nearly as much as a protected wireless system.
"For a normal person who wants to keep their home or maybe their office safe, you're a lot better going away from the wireless and getting something that's hardwired," said Larsen. "Then it's a secure connection from the camera to your viewing device."
All of the business and homeowners interviewed by KSL for this story have pulled the plugs on their wireless cameras after this investigation; the wired ones stayed put.
The Utah County Attorney's Office told KSL that tapping into someone's security camera is illegal. In some cases, doing so would be a misdemeanor; in others, it is a felony. That is why KSL asked for permission before picking up the images from unencrypted wireless security cameras.
What should you do if you own a wireless security camera? Some of these systems do come with an encryption option. However, if you fail to select that option during set-up, the system will default to an open signal anyone can access. If you are unsure about your camera, call the manufacturer to find out if it can be encrypted.
If you think no one is going to bother looking at wireless camera signals, you should know this has turned into a hobby for some. Since 2002, groups around the country have been meeting, trying to tap into these wireless security cameras. They call it "warspying."