Home Surveillance using Dropbox Catches Possible Thief in the Act

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Tom Keating
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Home Surveillance using Dropbox Catches Possible Thief in the Act

I've been meaning to test out my home surveillance recipe which combines a standard webcam, Dropbox (hosted backup solution), iPhone & iPad mobile Dropbox app, and the free Yet Another Webcam Software (Yawcam). I went to Cape Cod last week and hired a pet sitter to watch our family's dog (Jessie) and cat (Boaz), which offered a perfect opportunity to test out my "poor man's home surveillance" setup. What I found happening in my house while on my vacation shocked me! omg

But first, my home surveillance recipe:
  1. Setup and install Dropbox (comes with 2GB free). If you use this link, I get 250MB more storage.
  2. Create two folders within the main Dropbox folder. One called 'homeimages' for motion detection pictures and another called 'homeimages30s' for capturing a snapshot every 30 seconds.
  3. Download the free Yawcam software
  4. Launch Yawcam and it'll look something like this:
  5. Click 'Settings', 'Output', 'File' and Browse to your Dropbox 'homeimages30s' folder as shown here:
    For the filename format use something like this:
  6. Next, click 'Window', 'Motion Detection', 'Actions'.
    Check the box for 'Save File' and click 'Settings' next to it.
    Within 'Settings' you want the quality to be around 85%.
    I set mine to snap 5 images with a 1000ms (1 second) interval. You can also activate the flood control. For the filename ('Save file:') use my example for the filename format:
    This timestamps each photo with the date and time.
  7. Enable the Motion detection by clicking the 'enable' button next to 'Motion'. You're done! Go check out the Dropbox folder and see if photos are being dropped there.
  8. (optionally) Configure HTTP (web) access and streaming. They are pretty straightforward and use ports 8888 and 8081 respectively. You just have to configure your firewall to forward these ports accordingly.
The beauty of Yawcam is that its live streaming feature uses a JavaScript applet that works on the iPhone & iPad using Safari! No special software required - it's simply leveraging MJPEG (motion JPEG). Here's a screenshot of me viewing a live stream of my downstairs family room: (exact URL erased for security reasons)

The livestream video frames per second was decent - anywhere from 2-10fps when viewed from a browser (iPhone, PC browser, etc.). Just to have motion video surveillance via my iPhone and iPad made this a win-win solution. But wait, it gets better!

Another reason why I set this up was so our family could check in on our pets, which often greet us by the garage door & adjacent back door. First, I should mention that we specifically told our pet sitter that the downstairs family room, which includes two computers, various gadgets, and a large flat screen TV, was off limits. So the only photos the camera should capture of the pet sitter is her coming in the back door, as well as her walking into an adjacent room to the family room where she needs to change the litter box. I had no intentions of "spying" on our pet sitter, but certainly would like to make sure no one is touching my stuff, which includes our digital media (home videos, photos) as well as financial data.

Well at around 11:30pm I decided to peruse the Dropbox photos from my iPad. I was missing my dog Jessie and was hoping to see some photos of her. Indeed I did...
Jessie sniffing something on coffee table.

Jessie thinking about getting on the couch. Don't do it! You've been specially trained only to get on the couch when invited!

Bad dog! You're not supposed to be on the couch uninvited!

Sleeping Boaz (cat) pops his head up to look at Jessie. Jessie makes herself comfortable.

Boat wants to cuddle with Jessie. Jessie, not so much. Jessie leaps off.

Ok, at this point, I think my DIY home surveillance system is great. I get to see my pets, saw them interacting, caught my dog acting a bit mischievous, and laughed when I saw Boaz cause Jessie to give up her spot on the couch. But wait, what's this I see? I swipe the iPad to view the next photo...

I've pixelated and blurred the identity of this stranger in my house. Note how he is holding my wireless keyboard.

Our new pet sitter is female and yet here I am sitting in Cape Cod, 3.5 hours from my house and I see a male stranger typing on my wireless keyboard hooked up to my HTPC. Who the heck is this guy? Do I call the police? We paid the pet sitter to sleepover & house-sit, so this guy could simply be a boyfriend staying over even though my wife explicitly said no guests were allowed. Regardless, what the hell is he doing messing with my PC? I swipe the iPad once more to view the next Dropbox photo:
The unknown male looks right at the camera. He looks like a deer in the headlights caught in the act & up to no good.

I swipe the Dropbox app once more and see this shocking photo:

He moved my camera to face the TV and Microsoft Kinect.

What is this guy up to? Can't be good if turned the camera away. Is he stealing our stuff?

It was 11:40pm at night when I showed my sleeping wife the photos to get her thoughts. She was pretty upset, got up and fired off an email to the owner of the pet sitting business. Both of us had a hard time sleeping.

In the morning the owner of the pet sitting business called to explain that her female employee was freaked out that the webcam was an "Internet" webcam and she didn't know it was part of a DIY home surveillance system. I'm not sure exactly how a webcam is any different from a traditional home surveillance camera other than the way they "look". Both can be connected to the Internet and/or recording. But I suppose not everyone is tech-savvy to realize that.

In any case, the girl was worried that someone was "spying" over the Internet. Although the owner didn't mention this and I still haven't spoken to the pet sitter directly, I suppose it is possible that she saw the light on the webcam and thought perhaps someone hacked into the webcam and turned it on for remote spying. There are precedents for that, including for example a school district spying on students' webcams. The owner then explained that she asked her boyfriend to turn the camera around. The owner went on to say she knows the boyfriend and she personally vouched for him. The owner added that the boyfriend felt terrible over the trouble he caused.

The owner eventually set our minds at ease, but we did lose one night's sleep and the added stress made me consume an entire pound of Reeses chocolate fudge from the famous Cape Cod Chatham Candy Manor store, but I guess all's well that ends well.

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