Thursday, April 4, 2019

Cell Phone Security Camera

A few weeks ago, during the serious rainfall that triggered our local flooding, my cell phone got soaked. That's one of the hazards of working outdoors a lot, and I've been lucky for a long time; I've had this poor phone for over four years and have always taken good care of it, but the Otterbox case that has kept it safe from drops and scratches wasn't enough to protect it from being drenched and the microphone on it died.

My new phone is undergoing testing for a future article, but I managed to get the old one running (minus the microphone) and was looking for a good use for an outdated Samsung Galaxy S4. Trade-in value was zero and getting it repaired is going to be a challenge due to its age (parts are hard to come by), so I have a mostly-functional smart phone to play with. While setting up the new phone with new apps, I ran across one that sounded interesting and I decided to give it a shot. 

Meet Alfred
Alfred is a small app that runs on phones and tablets that have at least Android 2.5 and a similar version of iOS (I'm not a fan of Apple, so I don't have the exact version required). It lets you use the camera and speaker/microphone on a phone or tablet as a home security camera, recording with live video that you can view on a second phone/tablet or on a computer. No phone contract is required if you have Wi-Fi coverage, so it works well inside a house or apartment that already has wireless internet. The app itself is free, with the normal ads popping up once in a while (removable for $16.99) and there is a subscription option ($2.50-$4.00 per month) for HD quality video, no ads, and a few other perks. I'm not interested in paying a monthly fee, so I haven't tested those options and this will only cover the free version.

Set Up
Setting the app up is about as simple as you can make things:
  1. Download Alfred on two phones/tablets;
  2. Designate one as the Camera and the other as the Viewer;
  3. Log in using a Gmail address (it doesn't ask for your password, so they're not getting access to you emails);
  4. and you're ready to go. 
You can have as many phones as you want on your account; just use the same Gmail account when you set them up as Camera or Viewer. If you have an Android phone, you have a Gmail account, and if not, they're free and you can always set up a throw-away account.

How you set up the camera is up to you. I currently have my old phone plugged into a charger with the phone propped up in a corner of a window overlooking the sidewalk outside my front door. You can place the camera phone just about anywhere as long as it has power and a Wi-Fi signal, so I may move mine around to find a better spot. I could leave it in my truck, plugged into the charger and parked close enough to get a signal from the home router and have a view of one of the blind spots in my yard. The garage blocks the view of about half of my backyard, so this would be a nice addition to my security setup. I need to check a few other spots for Wi-Fi signal strength to see if there may be a more permanent spot to mount a phone.

  • The quality of the video is limited to what your old phone cameras can provide. My “old” Samsung has a 12MP rear camera, which is much better than any of the dedicated security cameras I've seen on the market.
  • Motion detection is an option. You can set the sensitivity or turn it off completely. I have birds nesting in a tree outside my window and I couldn't set the sensitivity low enough to prevent constant alerts, so I shut it off.
  • Sharing video. You can add people to a “Trust Circle” and allow them to view your camera feeds by adding their Gmail account. This is set up for each camera individually, so it will let you share what you want and keep some things private.
  • Camera switching. If your Camera phone has a front and rear camera, you can switch between the two from your Viewer phone. This is a handy feature if you have the Camera phone set in a hallway and want to see both directions.
  • Speaker/microphone. You can toggle the Camera phone's microphone off and on for audio surveillance. If you need to say something to a person when they appear on your camera, hold down on the microphone symbol and talk into the Viewer phone. Audio is not quite real-time, there is a bit of lag depending on your internet connection, but the quality is comparable to a speaker phone conversation.
  • Recording video. On the free version you're limited to short 5-30 second clips (as determined by the motion detection) saved on the service's computers for 7 days, but you can download them to your own storage; the subscription service stores them for 30 days. I'm still playing with this option, but my neighborhood is pretty boring so there isn't much worth recording.
  • Misc. You can turn the flashlight of the camera phone off and on remotely as well as activate an ”Alarm” mode that will set off an alarm at the maximum volume on the camera phone until you silence it.

All told, I haven't found any downsides to this app yet. I'm still digging around and need to check with a few friends who know more about internet security than I do, but for a free app using surplus equipment that was paid for a long time ago (or cheap off eBay), this beats the snot out of paying hundreds for a security camera system. Next on my list of things to try is getting a dead phone with a “bad” serial number that has been blacklisted by the phone companies and see if it will work. Since the app doesn't use the SIM card at all, just Wi-Fi, it should work.

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