Technologist: Security Spying

Sue Walter used to worry about her house on Florida's Gulf Coast. As a pilot, she often travels for weeks at a time, and her house sits in prime hurricane territory. To check up on things while she is away, she bought a low-cost video surveillance system. Now she logs on to a Web site to see her yard in real time. One day, however, she caught her parents eating food taken from her fridge. "I called them and said, 'You're so busted'," she says.

Although security is the selling point of video surveillance systems, customers are discovering a very different benefit: the ability to spy on people. The devices are affordable and relatively easy to install. One system, LukWerks, made by Utah-based WiLife, includes lightweight cameras that connect to a PC via home power lines. Whenever the cameras detect motion, the PC sends out an e-mail or text message, complete with embedded video. The company says it has sold tens of thousands of starter kits (starting at $299) in nine countries. Many other firms sell similar devices—research firm iSuppli estimates 2 million units shipped in 2006, which they expect to quadruple by 2011.

The easy availability of remote cameras has led to some novel sociological developments. Matt Pyken, a television producer who lives in Los Angeles, bought a system after his wife, who often works from home, was targeted by a stalker. The stalker is now in jail, but Pyken still gets an e-mail with a video clip, which he watches from his cell phone, every time someone comes to his door. "The ironic thing is, more than catching anybody at your place, you catch people fudging on times," he says. "A delivery person will say they dropped something off at 4:30, but you have video of them dropping it off at 6:45."

Privacy advocates say the cameras are being abused. One homeowner reported that his neighbor had installed a camera above a 3-meter privacy fence, aimed into his backyard, says Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego consumer-advocacy group. A woman complained that her husband had installed a spycam inside their home without her knowledge.

Small businesses like the cameras. "It's a powerful tool, not only for customer theft but for controlling our employees," says Jim Larson, owner of a U.S. convenience-store chain. He's caught employees stealing gasoline, skimming from the register and arriving late. Are they aware they're being watched? Larson says, "We don't make that knowledge known."