Home Security Insecurities

Wait, so why could changes to the cellular system cause headaches for your home security setup? And honestly, is it really that big of a deal?

Today in Tedium: One of the more obvious problems facing companies in an increasingly connected world is ensuring that customers themselves are always connected. Internet companies aren’t doing much business with customers that don’t have an internet connection. Facebook has been addressing this issue in developing countries by offering access to their products from any device. In some countries this has led to Facebook being synonymous with the internet. More recently, Amazon announced an almost certainly doomed initiative to power the internet of things by allowing devices like Alexa to utilize neighbors’ internet connections. The program, known as Sidewalk, will require users to opt out before automatic enrollment starts next week. Among the billion dollar corporations with connectivity problems, one industry has been battling the issue for more than a century. And yet another big disruption is coming their way. Today’s Tedium is looking at home security systems and the economic brilliance of security theater. — Andrew @ Tedium

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$458.6B

The estimated amount of money generated by the home security systems market globally by 2025. The home security industry has evolved beyond simple door sensors and the occasional security camera. The internet of things (IoT) has greatly expanded the product range for home security companies to include flood sensors and energy consumption monitoring among others. While increased functionality makes home security systems attractive to a wider swath of consumers, the tech behind these devices pose an existential threat to the industry.

Motion Detector

An example of a motion detector, of the kind used in home security systems. (Joey Parsons/Unsplash)

Home security is about the monitoring

Our love of obscure but ubiquitous industries knows few bounds. (My 1,951-word minimus opus on the wonders of the packaged ice industry is a prime example.) Stories of this nature tend to reveal the complexity and massive scale necessary for our modern world to function. Usually they cover much appreciated goods and services, like point-of-sale systems which manage to be a good that provides a service. But in the vast complexity of modern economics, a few industries manage to capture billions in annual revenue while barely offering a good or service.

If you think about it, our current understanding of home security is a pretty recent invention that more or less coincides with the Industrial Revolution. Even then, security systems were only found in wealthy urban homes that were occasionally left unattended. Think the first robber barons with second and third homes. Remarkably, the early home security industry looks a lot like the modern one, which is largely due to one company.

The concept of home security has obviously been around for centuries. What largely distinguishes modern security systems is the concept of remote monitoring that was enabled by telegraph and telephone technologies introduced in the 19th century. These innovations were pioneered by American District Telegraph known more commonly as ADT, which still dominates the home security market today.

If you have a home security system, you probably understand how it basically works. Sensors attach to doors and windows, if they are disturbed when the system is activated, an alarm goes off. These systems are often prevented by law from contacting law enforcement agencies or 911 directly, which makes sense as following up on false alarms can overextend responders. Before the ubiquity of smartphones and broadband connections, the only option for monitored home security was established companies with massive infrastructure built solely for that purpose. And monitoring is where the money is.

Shop around for a home security system and you’ll quickly notice any number of companies willing to give you the system at little or no cost. The super cool add-ons that you really want will cost extra but the basic system won’t cost much. This is, of course, because you’ll also be signing a multi-year, automatically renewing contract for home security monitoring. Remarkably, the monthly monitoring fee over the life of the initial contract (usually three years) barely covers the cost of the free system. It is expected the contract will renew as the average length of a contract in the industry is typically around nine years. (Disclaimer: I used to work in the home security industry in a marketing capacity.)

Considering the size of the industry and the private resources dedicated to keeping our homes safe, you’d be forgiven for thinking a security system is effective for deterring crime. They’re not.

For many homeowners, security isn’t really the point of a home security system. Homeowners insurance gives discounts for monitored systems. Law enforcement has no end of praise for the ubiquity of Ring cameras as they help thwart porch pirates and general home burglary. But simple peace of mind is still a major factor in getting a homeowner to sign a home security contract. If, God (Gods, or lack thereof) forbid, something were to happen, someone is monitoring your system, invested in your security … connectivity permitting.

6M

The number of homes, businesses, and government facilities that face loss of connectivity to alarm monitoring centers as telecommunications companies phase out 3G technology. Industry associations say the “harmful, even deadly” situation impacts tens of millions of people.

Alarm System

(Bernard Hermant/Unsplash)

When tech transfers create a crisis, or the unintended effects that the wind-down of 3G cellular networks will have on the security industry

The rollout of 5G wireless technologies came with more than a few surprises. Along with a range of fairly typical conspiracy theories, the 5G rollout had hiccups that made the transition more complicated. Of course there has been the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lock downs. But this also coincides with an aggressive transition window pushed by telecommunications companies.

The Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC) has noted the problem in a recent filing to the FCC, “When the 2G network was sunset, service providers announced a 4-year transition period. At the time, the alarm industry operated approximately 2.4 million cellular-based radios.” They go on to note that the transfer to 5G was only given three years while the industry has two and a half times as many 3G products in the field. Less time and more work was always going to be problematic but required on site visits to update the systems came to a halt during COVID.

Currently, the group’s filing to delay the shut down is only aimed at AT&T as the telecommunications giant seeks a February 2022 end date. Verizon has announced their 3G shutdown for the end of 2022, which the AICC hopes the FCC will extend to AT&T. (This issue is hoarding acronyms.)

This request comes amidst an interesting time for regulators dealing with aging, but commercially viable, communications standards. Sprint had its WiMax shutdown halted in 2016 by a Massachusetts court injunction effective in 75 cities nationwide. The suit was filed by two nonprofits that argued the shutdown violated their contracts by forcing adoption of a slower LTE alternative. Dish Network was able to make a similar argument against T-Mobile to prevent closure of their 3G CDMA network, a headache that came with the company’s acquisition of Sprint.

So with all of these connectivity issues surrounding the home security industry, should consumers worry about being left unprotected against the harsh violence of modern life?

No.

One common stat thrown around by securing company marketing departments is that homes without security systems are three times more likely to be burgled. Academic experts doubt that stat, especially since some 83 percent of all homes don’t have a security system. When confronted with such information, industry executives are quick to brush it off. One reverted to an old industry maxim when talking with the New York Times, “You cannot overvalue the sense that comes with peace of mind.”

If $59.99 or more a month seems like a lot for peace of mind, you’re not alone. However, it is also worth considering why security companies are pushing to maintain 3G connectivity. Any service interruption can make consumers rethink their needs. After all, if an alarm activates and no one is there to hear it, does it really activate at all?

A video of a television simulator in action.

Four devices, of varying seriousness, that can help protect your home without a monthly fee

  1. Reinforced doors. There are any number of kits you can order online to reinforce your existing exterior doors. As a significant number of home invasions involve a burglar simply kicking in your front door, these kits do wonders to thwart opportunistic criminals. Some of the sturdier versions can even withstand police battering rams.
  2. Television simulators. Yeah, this one always makes me laugh but the logic makes sense. These light arrays do what they say and make it seem that a TV is on. However, the effect is best used at night and the majority of burglaries take place during the day. You know, when people are likely to be at work. (The pandemic notwithstanding.)
  3. Motion activated lights. Some houses have blind spots that can give ideal cover for criminals to covertly gain entry. Motion activated lights can be a great way to at least inconvenience criminals. Again, as most burglaries take place during the day, they’ll have a limited security impact.
  4. Barking Dogs Playlists. More than a few companies offer CDs, cassettes, etc. of barking dogs. You can also find similar sound effects on Spotify. As silly as this seems, the presence of a dog has shown to be one of the most effective burglar deterrents. In interviews with former burglars, dogs were routinely identified as a “deal breaker” in identifying a potential target.

Dummy Security Camera

A dummy security camera, a kind of product for which there is a surprisingly bustling business for on Amazon. (MaxSat/Flickr)

How much security is there in security theater?

Perhaps the most frightening of security adages is that no home is ever completely secure. If someone wants to break into your house, they probably can. To deter thieves from your home, inconvenience is the best weapon. However, inconvenience is perspective. What’s time consuming and difficult for one thief can be stunningly simple to another. (Check out the internet’s favorite part time locksmith if you want to see how easy it can be to thwart most commercial locks.)

Security theater has become part of western culture after 9/11. Numerous articles decrying the Department of Homeland Security as nothing more than security theater abound. The Atlantic even went so far as to title a 2014 article, “The TSA Is in the Business of ‘Security Theater,’ Not Security“. While long lines at airports and local anti-terrorism units became common, many took a sense of fear home with them. The home security industry grew five percent annually by 2017. Between 2006 and 2015, burglary rates in America fell 28 percent. The proliferation of home security systems is projected to continue to skyrocket as DIY and self-monitored devices become more popular. By 2025, this market is expected to increase to more than $32 billion in addition to the traditional home and business security market.

Good news for the larger security industry spells trouble for traditional alarm companies that rely on monitoring fees for revenue. They are seeing slower growth, and much of that is limited to emerging markets in Asia and Africa. This trend also comes as the industry faces outdated connectivity and stalled updates caused by the COVID pandemic. Not to mention supply chain issues that have hit virtually every industry. Now more than ever, alarm companies desperately need to keep consumer service in place and uninterrupted. The alternative could mean bringing up the house lights on security theater.

Determining the efficacy of home security systems has always been problematic. If a home security system really does deter criminals, wouldn’t a sign announcing the presence of a home security system be just as effective?

Even the pursuit of security theater can be never ending. Do you feel it necessary to buy a generator to power your alarm system in the event of an extended black out? (To be fair, most security systems have battery backups that can last up to 12 hours.)

“Peace of mind” is the preferred mantra for companies peddling security solutions. Whatever brings you that peace of mind may vary but you could do worse than an unconnected alarm system. And for home security companies, that might mean an increasing number of consumers realizing they’re better off just getting a dog.

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Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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