Look who's watching now


Nanny cams graduate to the Internet By Graham Johnston


photo illustration by Ashley Ernst  

While you're at work who's watching your children? Now, it can be you.

Parents at work can still keep an eye on children in daycare, nanny care or anywhere that you can install new technology hooking your provider into the Internet.

The option of installing hidden cameras in your home to check out the babysitter has been available for several years, but it is now possible to install a hidden system to watch via the Internet from your desk. Several companies have also begun providing systems such as this to daycare centers. These cameras-not hidden-are an asset to the center since parents can go to the daycare's Web site and view their children from any Internet-connected computer.

This service has yet to hit Chicago area daycare centers full force but it is expected to become big business in the next few years. The connections offer parents a sense of security-but is it a false sense? Are Web sites secure? Is someone else sneaking a peek at your children?

Keep it secure John Frycek, director of Spy Source in Des Plaines, sells a system costing about $1,500, including a stand-alone Linux-based computer and four video cameras. Parents connect to this computer from the Internet and see what the cameras are recording. Frycek is so confident in his system that he has offered a $2,000 reward to any reformed computer hacker who can break in. None has succeeded yet. "With out systems there is no danger. It's impossible to hack into this Linux box," Frycek claims.

Is it really impossible? What is Linux and why is it so secure? Linux, an operating system such as Windows, is used only on a small number of computers. No one knows it. John Banghart calls it security through obscurity.

"If you're running a less popular operating system you're likely to be less of a target," says Banghart, director of benchmark services at the Center for Internet Security. Linux is harder, but never impossible, to hack into because it requires such specific knowledge, he says.

Frycek has also installed larger systems for three daycares in the Chicago area but would not say which ones for confidentiality reasons.

Heidi Herbert, CEO of Source One Video, which owns and operates KidsVision, a daycare camera system provider, believes her company's security will prevent unauthorized Web site viewing access.

"The same people that could go and sit in that daycare center are the same people that could log in," she says. "It would be much easier for someone to go to the center and request a tour than to get through our security process."

Breaking and entering All Web sites use encryption to secure information-it's really an electronic form of an old idea, the coded message. For security KidsVision uses on its Web sites the most common form of encryption-128-bit, according to Banghart. When parents go to the Web site any information they send or receive becomes encrypted, which means it cannot be viewed by someone else "watching" their computers. Breaking encryption is just as hard as it sounds, requiring specific expertise in encryption and special computer hardware, according to Banghart. The best thing parents can do to keep the Web site safe is to protect their user names and passwords.

"You as an individual need to make sure that you don't share that information," says Banghart.

Some viruses or spyware can infect a home computer and attempt to monitor and record everything typed on the keyboard, including passwords. Spy Source sells consumer versions of this software for $100.

But if he or she was to defeat the encryption, the passwords or the obscure operating system, then he or she is crossing the line to breaking the law-guilty of some form of computer tampering. If that person does not damage the daycare's computers, the first offense of accessing a computer without the owner's authorization could be a class A or B misdemeanor. As long as the video is not saved, it is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. If any part of the video is saved, it moves to the higher Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail.

The law protects the computer not the child, because it addresses violating the computer. But there is no law to deal with this type of unauthorized voyeurism.

"I think the law lags behind technology for obvious reasons," says Harold Krent, dean and professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Technology changes faster than laws are made and now there is what Krent calls a "statutory gap" between what technology is capable of and what the law addresses.

Coming soon Herbert says her company doesn't yet work in Illinois, although she has received about 100 requests for information here. Carl Witt, a customer service representative with ABseeCams, another daycare camera provider, writes in an e-mail that he expects substantial industry growth in the Midwest in the next few years.

And because it is not really in Chicago yet, most parents have not yet thought through the ramifications of daycare cameras-although on first blush, a few parents liked the idea.

"I think it'd be good," says Mary Grant of Chicago's South Side. She stopped working downtown to look after her children, now ages 5 and 7. "I came home because I had my kids in daycare," she says.

Beth Simonis of Algonquin and her family have had experience with Web site cameras, only not to watch children. The family watched their dog at a boarding house while on vacation. Simonis' twin daughters are now 12 years old, but she likes the idea of keeping an eye on them.

"When they were younger it would have been helpful, only if people know it's there," she says.

When cameras do make it into your local daycare center the true costs are sometimes very little. KidsVision charges no upfront costs to the daycare center for installing the cameras. Instead it charges a monthly fee, which Herbert says averages about $1 to $3 per child per week. ABseeCams charges $3,500 upfront and then a monthly fee of $60. Daycares recoup these costs by raising tuition rates.

Graham Johnston is a Chicago Parent intern and a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia.


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