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13 WTHR Indianapolis | Indianapolis Local News & Weather

13 Investigates: Who's watching you?

13 Investigates discovered families across central Indiana are jeopardizing their privacy –without even realizing it – because of technology they don't fully understand.
A handheld device can pick up signals from home security cameras.

13 Investigates has discovered what you do inside your own home might not be as private as you think. A two-month investigation reveals many families are risking their privacy – giving strangers an opportunity to watch what is happening behind closed doors. Investigative reporter Bob Segall shows you how it's happening -- and how to protect yourself.

You can lock your doors, draw your blinds and close your drapes.

It still might not be enough to keep a total stranger from watching you and your family inside your own home.

13 Investigates discovered families across central Indiana are jeopardizing their privacy -- without even realizing it – because of technology they don't fully understand.

"People have this false sense of security," said private investigator Steve Bockler. "Most people have no idea this is happening, and it's something they should really know."

Bockler, lead investigator for SBI Professional Investigations, estimates thousands of Indiana families are at risk, and he provided WTHR with a hand-held device to prove his point.

The device allowed 13 Investigates to see inside dozens of homes and businesses.

Seeing inside

During eight hours of surveillance, WTHR was able to see inside restaurants, shops and office buildings. We were able to watch employees at work and see if anyone was monitoring cash registers.

In homes and apartment buildings, we could see children waking up and going to sleep, what kind of cars people have in their garages, whether anyone was home and what they were doing inside. We could see what was happening in living rooms, family rooms and bedrooms – a front row seat to watch what was going on behind closed doors all over town.

"The most intimate settings in your house are on display for anybody," Bockler explained.

How is it possible? How could someone see into your home or businesses without ever walking inside?

It's surprisingly easy -- if you have a baby monitor or a security system that uses a wireless camera.

Those cameras send video to a nearby monitor where you can see it.

But many wireless cameras transmit the images hundreds of yards, broadcasting them outside your home, as well.

That means anyone with a hand-held wireless camera detector can simply tune in your images via radio frequencies broadcast over public airwaves. Bockler uses a wireless camera detector to perform electronic "bug sweeps" for clients and, in the process, routinely picks us images coming from nearby homes. Wireless camera detectors are legal, widely available on the Internet, and they allow someone else to monitor unsecured wireless video coming from inside your home or business.

"It's a great tool to have wireless cameras for the right application, but the problem is people don't realize these are all public airwaves," Bockler said. "Anybody can see this stuff. We found cameras that are broadcasting over 500 yards and I just don't think people understand that."

"Real scary"

Judy Wilemon didn't know.

We met Wilemon as she got home from work and, thanks to a wireless security system inside her Indianapolis house, 13 Investigates watched her walk inside, set her purse down on her living room table and pick up her cell phone to make a call.

"That's scary, real scary," she told 13 Investigates. "I didn't know you could see that. I thought it was just on my [security camera] monitor, not everyplace else."

In Fishers, WTHR was able to watch Sumiko Nakano and her 1-year-old twin daughters in their family room because of a baby monitor set up there.

"Very surprising," Nakano said when she saw images of her family room on the wireless camera detector.

In Carmel, WTHR detected images being broadcast from a bedroom, where a wireless camera showed the residents getting dressed.

Perhaps most common, 13 Investigates discovered wireless cameras focused on the beds of young children all over town -- a breach of security most parents never even think about.

"That's my daughter's bed. She's three and a half," said Richard Buus, who has two wireless cameras in his Fishers home -- one in his daughter's bedroom and another in her playroom. WTHR could see both from two blocks away.

"Those are on pretty much 24 hours a day," Buus told WTHR. "It's a little disconcerting to think anybody with a handheld device like that can walk through the neighborhood and get a peek at our daughters' life at any time."

Significant concern for police

Police agree.

"Wow! People need to be aware of this," said Lawrence Deputy Police Chief Gary Woodruff, looking through wireless camera images captured by 13 Investigates.

"For someone to be able to sit outside your residence and monitor your video surveillance system and see if you're home or not, see what you're doing and then take action from there, that's a significant concern," Woodruff said.

Private investigators and police say you should use wireless cameras carefully and consider whether you really need them at all.

Wilemon has decided to give up the cameras in her living room. "They're coming down. The ones in the house are coming down right away," she said.

Buus says he plans to be more cautious.

"I'll think twice about where we're placing those cameras and what were training them on, and when we have them turned on and when we don't," Buus explained.

"Most people think these cameras are transmitting a signal to the next room, but really it's across the block and down the street," Bockler said. "It's something people need to know if they don't know that already."

Reducing the risk

To reduce the opportunity for others to intercept video images from your wireless camera, Bockler recommends taking several steps:

* Only have your wireless baby monitor operating when you really need it, and  turn the camera off when you are not at home.

* Focus baby monitors and security cameras tightly on what you want to see -- not on an entire room or wide area that might show strangers who's home and what you're doing.

* Considering using a hard-wired system instead of a wireless one, and if you're looking for a new baby monitor or security camera, consider one with enhanced security features.

Many of the systems that include enhanced security features also provide enhanced convenience that is worth the additional cost, according to Best Buy technology expert Joe Weiss.

"Remote video monitoring has grown by leaps and bounds in the past three to five years," Weiss said. "The systems we see now are a lot more secure and they offer a very affordable solution."

Weiss says wireless baby monitors and security cameras that put your privacy at risk all have one thing in common: analog technology.

"Analog is an older technology and it's not encrypted, so it's wide open. It broadcasts just like an FM radio," he explained.  Most wireless cameras that are more than two or three years old use the older technology.

"If you're looking to buy something now, you'd want to see where it says ‘encrypted' or ‘digitally secure' or ‘network protected.'  If you have a system like that and it's set up properly, that will give you the peace of mind to know that you're the only one who's able to see your child."

Lots of alternatives

Wireless camera manufacturers now offer dozens of digitally encrypted options that feature enhanced privacy and convenience.

The "Slim & Secure" handheld baby monitor by Summer is promoted as "100% digital for private connection." WTHR tested that baby monitor for privacy and found images from the system ($200 Toys R Us) could not be intercepted with a wireless camera detector. 

WiFi Baby offers a secure, password-protected wireless baby monitor that streams high definition video and audio to your computer or Internet-enabled smart phone. The $279 system requires a wireless router and operates well under low-light conditions. 

Video surveillance products from D-Link also send a secure signal to your computer or smartphone, allowing you to monitor a room from anywhere in the world.  Priced at around $100 (Best Buy, Wal-mart, Staples), the D-Link cameras feature motion detection and e-mail alerts to notify you of activity. 

Panasonic and Logitech offer additional features on their wireless home security systems, such as the ability to zoom and focus cameras remotely; detection capabilities using motion, sound or heat; custom notification and remote monitoring; and expansion up to 16 cameras – all for under $300 (Best Buy).

"The idea is that no matter where you're at, you can have your iPhone, your Android, your PC, or your iPad and be able to view your home or your baby remotely through an Internet portal," Weiss said. "It's all protected content … and it doesn't have to cost thousands of dollars."

Bottom line: Do your research. And if you want to avoid the risk of someone spying on wireless camera images coming from your home or business, forgo a baby monitor or security system with an analog camera for a more secure system with newer technology.