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The Red Door of CCTV

I am always amazed during my trips to China.  The number of cameras and digital video recorders being sold out of China today is mind-blowing when you consider the size of the industry just 12 years ago.  On my most recent trip, I visited 4 large CCTV manufacturers who produce a total of over 300,000 DVRs each month.  Granted, this is a global market, and not all of those DVRs are hitting US store shelves, websites, or security dealers’ install trucks.  However, it’s clear that China has become a force to be reckoned with in the US CCTV market.  Sure, Korea and Taiwan are still producing product, but the Chinese have volume and momentum on their side.  I estimate that over one million DVRs are coming into the USA each year, complete with Chinese software.

My concern is not with how many units are being installed in the US, but instead the fact that we are bringing in product that is wholly designed, developed, and manufactured in China.  None of the Intellectual Property is from the US.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those China haters – in fact, I’ve come to love the Chinese people and their culture.  But given the political atmosphere in China, one might wonder what is really installed on these Digital Video Recorders.  How do we know that there is not some back door allowing Chinese manufacturers or the Chinese government the ability to log in and see live streaming video from devices they make and control?

In September of 2013, the US government banned all telecommunications equipment from Huawei from being installed in US government applications because of a concern that the Chinese government could listen in or collect network data without any knowledge or permission from their customers.  However, Huawei also owns a company called HI Silicon, whose chips have now become one of the most popular chips used in DVRs and CCTV cameras today.  If the US government is concerned about their network data being compromised, shouldn’t we also be concerned about who is looking at our live security cameras streams?   Who is deleting or saving video?   And who could be collecting information on our networks?

Major CCTV OEMs and resellers are flocking to China to buy low-cost DVRs and IP cameras to compete in a market that is becoming commoditized.  There are benefits to this, but the downside is that no thought is given to what software is installed on that hardware.

HIK Vision, one of the largest Chinese CCTV manufacturers, gets its primary funding from the Chinese government.  It’s an impressive operation with hundreds of engineers, from which some great, innovative products have resulted.  But should we be concerned that we are buying this CCTV equipment with software that is developed with no oversight and no way truly to know if these is something malicious or devious hidden within?

There is at least one known precedent for this: In 2008, researchers discovered that the Chinese version of Skype contained a surveillance system for monitoring conversations that contained certain politically-charged words (including “democracy”). The suspicion was that one of the Chinese creators of Tom-Skype may have been working with the Chinese police to collect information on users’ conversations.

China is not going to stop producing DVRs or cameras, nor should they – but we need to start asking questions, and more US companies need to take up the task of developing software in the USA.  Even if CCTV systems are based on low-cost Chinese hardware, USA-based software development is the safest bet to ensure that security video remains secure.

For the last 6 years, SAY Security has been developing CCTV software solutions based on low-cost Asian hardware.  It’s not that we think the original software is bad; we just don’t know how much we can trust it.  USA-based software development also brings a local level of control to the product.

The CCTV industry is becoming more driven by software and add-on features, and I believe that software developed in the USA is the best answer to that demand.  After all, the best software in the world is made right here in the USA.  Microsoft, Apple, and Google have no major international rivals; sure, they make the hardware in Asia, but the software is made here!  It’s highlighted right on the back of the iPhone – “Designed in the USA, assembled in China.”  So I challenge the major CCTV OEMs: Bring back software development to the USA.  We will be safer and better off for it.

What Does Net Neutrality Mean for Hotels?

If you are a hotel owner or, for that matter, a customer of any Internet service provider, you need to be aware of a recent court decision.  On January 14, an appeals court judge threw out the premise of net neutrality.  The judge’s decisions could affect hotel owners and travelers in an adverse way in the months and years to come.

What is net neutrality and what does it mean to you?  In a nutshell, net neutrality was an attempt to keep the Internet a fair place to do business.  Under net neutrality, Internet service providers could not charge differently for different types of traffic. Without a “neutral” Internet, your ISP might charge users and content providers differently depending on what type of content is being delivered.

For example, we know that almost 75% of Internet traffic at hotels both large and small results from streaming movies and online video.  Without net neutrality in place, ISPs could decide that access to Netflix or YouTube is a premium feature and should cost you more on your bill.  Alternatively, ISPs might make networking changes internally and throttle your connection for streaming content.  Video is just one example; the same principle applies to higher-bandwidth applications such as Skype. And there’s nothing stopping an ISP from, say, charging extra for more than a certain number of emails.

Now, while the major ISPs will probably charge Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu extra for carrying streaming content (in fact, Netflix has already signed a deal with Comcast to ensure preferential access), such providers have teams of lawyers and coffers of money to fight any such battle.  Therefore, the onus of any extra charges that ISPs decide to add may fall onto us, the end users.

Obviously, this tends to complicate the high-speed Internet solution for hotels.  Hoteliers are already dealing with ever-increasing bandwidth requirements and other consequences of guests bringing more devices and using bandwidth-hungry sites like Netflix. Meanwhile, the bandwidth and connectivity expectations of guests are increasing exponentially, and customers don’t understand why they don’t receive the same amount of bandwidth at a hotel as they do at home.  Now imagine trying to explain to your guests why they need to pay $.25 for each email they send, or why there will be a surcharge if they use streaming content.

If the death of net neutrality does indeed result in ISPs passing on new charges to end users based on the type of content they use, new methods and standards will need to be devised to find a fair way to pay for one hotel guest who is streaming movies vs. a customer who only surfing the web or checking email.  New hardware and software may also need to be developed to collect information about which sites a guest is visiting, how many emails she is sending, or how much bandwidth she is consuming, in order to be able to charge fairly for content usage.

So, is there anything good about the death of net neutrality?  If you ask me, the answer is a resounding “No!” I believe that we should keep things simple and keep the Internet – the entire Internet, regardless of content type – widely accessible.  For now, we can only hope that competition and the free market keep the Internet an open and fair place to play.  The last thing we need is new government regulation or changes to how ISPs bill for the Internet.  But in the wake of net neutrality being struck down, the FCC has already proposed new rules.  I’ll keep you updated as developments occur.

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