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Graphic illustration of a house overlaid with different colored blocks and various home security devices. James Bareham for Vox/Recode

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Contracts, hacks, and Google: What to consider before you get a home security system

Consumers have more choices than ever to protect their homes, but those choices come with trade-offs.

Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.

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It has never been easier or cheaper to put some kind of security system in your home. I know this from personal experience. As one of the relatively small minority of Americans who has been the victim of a break-in — an experience I do not recommend and would prefer not to repeat — I decided to invest in home security by buying a small camera to monitor my apartment and send my phone alerts if it detected any motion or sound in it while I was enjoying a week-long vacation.

It was not a complete success. The camera was way too sensitive, sending out multiple alerts per day — all false alarms — that I wasn’t always able to check due to spotty internet service. By the end of the week, I was entirely ignoring the alerts.

My first attempt at DIY home security certainly could have gone better, but it wasn’t a total disaster, either. If someone had broken into my apartment, I’m sure the camera would have picked them up — if nothing else, it was extremely sensitive to movement and sound. And even though my lack of internet access meant I couldn’t see the livestream of my apartment, the camera would at least get a recording of the burglar that could be used as evidence. For less than $30, I got some peace of mind that my apartment wasn’t being burglarized or burned down in my absence.

These days, home security runs the gamut from a humble, internet-connected camera and a phone app to a professionally installed and monitored set-up that locks down your entire house. But any of these systems come with trade-offs, and figuring out what’s best for your needs and your budget can be confusing. You may also want to consider not just your home’s security but also your cybersecurity: Some systems have been prone to hacks, which is an especially scary prospect if the hackers are watching live footage of the inside of your home. You’re putting a lot of data about your home in the hands of private companies, so it’s important that you can trust what they do with it and how safe they keep it.

If you’re thinking about getting your own security system, here’s what you need to know.

An ADT yard sign. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The classic keypad-at-the-door home security system

While there are many do-it-yourself options out there for home security, professionally installed and monitored systems remain the leader in the market. These are the ones that come with the yard signs and window stickers and the classic keypad at the door where you type in various codes when you leave and enter your home. For decades, these systems were the only game in town, and consumers paid a lot for them — the installation, equipment, and monthly monitoring fees add up fast.

“For years, the security industry has been encumbered with this notion of, ‘We just sell these ugly little white plastic boxes and sensors, they’re ugly, they’re not very sophisticated,’” said Brad Russell, research director of connected home devices and security for Parks Associates.

The undeniable leader in this space is ADT, a company that long predates smart homes, the internet, and even telephones. The company started out as a telegraph delivery company — the “T” in ADT stands for “telegraph” — eventually branching out to fire and burglar alarms. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the technology was advanced (and cheap) enough for mainstream residential home use.

ADT’s competitors in this space include names like Vivint and Brinks Home Security. They can be a good option if you’ve got the money but not the technical know-how: Professionals will recommend the best package to you using their home security expertise, install everything, get it connected to your phone lines and the rest of your smart devices if you’ve got them, and show you how to work everything. Professionals will also monitor your home for alerts about things like potential break-ins, fires, and carbon monoxide leaks — and contact emergency services if needed — so you don’t need to be on call all the time.

The downside? They’re expensive. Installation costs money, the gadgets cost money, and the monthly monitoring costs money. You may also have to sign a long-term contract that locks you into the service for several years. Also, depending on where you live — for instance, in an apartment — it may not be an option for you at all.

A Ring video doorbell Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The smart home approach

Over the last decade, smart home technology has taken hold and cameras have gotten smaller, better, and cheaper. These innovations have made DIY home security a viable option for a reasonably tech-savvy and wallet-conscious person who wants to keep an eye on their home without paying a premium (or violating their lease) to do so.

You can buy as many or as few security gadgets as you want, including door and window sensors; interior, exterior, and doorbell cameras; alarms, smoke detectors, and keypads — the more you buy, obviously, the pricier your system becomes. Or you can forgo the dedicated home security system completely and go with a couple of cameras and an app instead. You set them up yourself, which means you’re also the one who has to figure out what your needs are and where your devices should actually go to be the most effective. You’ll also be the one who has to figure out how to set up the mobile app for alerts and integrate it into your smart home system if you have one. All this requires a certain amount of technical know-how. These systems are meant to be easy enough for anyone to set up, but that doesn’t mean everyone can.

Amazon’s Ring — which started life as a video doorbell but now offers a whole-home security system and social media app called Neighbors — may be the best-known in this space, given its association with Amazon. Google has its Nest line, SimpliSafe is one of the pioneers in DIY home security, and there are a ton of cameras out there from several manufacturers at a variety of price points. They have their own benefits, but they’ve also had their own controversies. Ring, for example, has had issues with hackers and its close association with law enforcement (more on that below).

If you go the completely DIY route, your system will also be self-monitored, so you’ll be the one who gets any alerts. And that means you have to be ready and able to get those alerts and act on them at all times. You might also have to pay for extras like monthly cloud storage to keep camera recordings, get advanced features like AI, or to have a cellular backup option in case your internet goes out and renders the system useless.

But you can also get the best of both worlds, which many traditional and DIY companies now offer. DIY systems may include professional monitoring for a monthly fee these days, for example, and those usually don’t require a long-term contract, making a more flexible and cheaper option for consumers. Some DIY systems even offer professional installation — Ring now has an “X Line” offering, for instance, which removes the DIY element entirely.

ADT has dipped its toe into the DIY space a few times already, pairing up with Samsung SmartThings and, recently, coming out with its own DIY line called Blue. A few weeks ago, it made its biggest play yet with a major partnership with Google, which will invest $450 million and take a 6.6 percent stake in the home security company. ADT will offer Google’s Nest family of smart home devices, as well as the artificial intelligence technology that powers them. Meanwhile, Google’s Nest products will have access to the professional installation and monitoring services of ADT. The deal represents a step forward for both companies, marrying the DIY approach of Nest with the established record and professional monitoring services of ADT. The deal shows that the leaders in the respective fields think they need each other to tap into a growing market that neither has been able to master: DIY smart home security.

Some things to keep in mind

While the security of your home is top of mind here, don’t forget that cybersecurity is important, too.

You may not like the privacy or cybersecurity trade-offs you may have to make with DIY systems — especially considering how sensitive the information they collect is if they include cameras inside of your home. Amazon’s Ring has had a few especially high-profile issues here.

Hackers found it relatively simple to break into Ring’s cameras, which initially didn’t have mandatory two-factor authentication (the majority of people don’t use two-factor authentication when it’s offered, leaving them much more vulnerable to hacks in general). There were several reports of hackers taking over customers’ cameras, watching their activities, and using the two-way talk feature to shout racial slurs at their kids. This is not ideal. Not to be left out, Nest has had some hacking issues of its own.

Ring also has controversial contracts with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country, giving the police access to customers’ video doorbell footage (if they consent to provide it) to assist in their investigations. Some might see this as a bonus, others might not.

Or you may not feel comfortable giving Google another source of data about you (you can, as always, opt out of having this data collected), though, I will note, just because you use a non-Google security system doesn’t mean Google isn’t getting data about you: These systems have apps, and those apps may well send information to Google if they use its SDKs. Of course, this isn’t a security app problem; it’s a mobile app industry problem.

And that’s not even getting into the lesser-known and even cheaper smart security cameras out there that could be even less secure; there are countless stories at this point of IoT devices that cut corners when it comes to cybersecurity. You might be fine with that for a device that tells you how many eggs are in your refrigerator, but it’s a risk you may not want to take when it comes to the camera over your baby’s crib. That’s not to say that every cheap, no-name camera has security flaws, but going with a more trusted brand might give you more peace of mind. It will also likely be more expensive.

But don’t relax too much into your peace of mind because there’s no guarantee that a name brand or one that places greater importance on cybersecurity won’t get hacked. As mentioned above, this has happened to Ring and Nest users, and even ADT has had issues, including recently revealing that one of its technicians added his email address to hundreds of customer accounts, giving him access to their cameras. The company also settled a class action lawsuit a few years ago for $16 million over allegations that its wireless sensors were easily susceptible to hacks because their signals weren’t encrypted.

If you’re really worried about hackers getting access to live footage of you in your living room, you can always just not use cameras at all and go with a system of motion detectors, door sensors, and smoke detectors. The base kits for many of these systems actually don’t include cameras at all, so maybe the cheap and simple offering is the best one for you.

If, after all this, you’re still interested in beefing up your home security, checking out review sites is always a good place to start. Consumer Reports has a nice overview of what’s available, as well as reviews of several systems. Wirecutter recommends professionally monitored systems but doesn’t seem to think much of companies that require long-term contracts and didn’t bother to review them at all. Wirecutter also has a dedicated review for security cameras, as does CNET. CNET also has suggestions for the best cheap security options, everything from smart light bulbs to my security system of choice, the lone sub-$30 camera.

Obviously, no system is perfect and some are going to be better for you than others depending on your specific needs. The good news is that the DIY security industry has made creating your own home security system easier and cheaper than ever, and is more accessible to more people than ever before.

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