Parents, beware: That baby monitor on which you rely to watch your little one can also be used by would-be burglars and others to snatch the signal from afar and peer into your newborn's room.
The potential problem lies in the open and unlicensed radio frequencies that baby monitors use. Your device's signal could be picked up by the receiver of a stranger's video monitor, giving that person a live video feed of your room while the transmitter is on.
"Most video monitors don't have security features," said Angelos D. Keromytis, associate professor of computer science at Columbia University in New York City.
It's a new take on an old problem that exists with cordless phones and audio baby monitors, which often allowed people to inadvertently, or intentionally, listen in on other people's conversations, he said.
The most secure baby video monitors are ones that hook up to your home's wireless network. But even then, experts warn, consumers need to set their Wi-Fi to a WPA2 security standard, which offers the best encryption of data. Earlier Wi-Fi protocols, such as WEP, are easier to hack.
Manufacturers sometimes claim that their digital video monitors are safe, but they're not as secure as they could be, Keromytis said.
A reporter from ABC affiliate WPLG, Miami's Channel 10, recently attached a baby monitor receiver to the dashboard of a car and drove around. Minutes later, he picked up images of babies and bedrooms.
But parents need not be overly alarmed, said Ken Denmead, the editor of the geekdad blog on Wired.com. He's yet to hear of a burglar using a baby monitor to case a house.
As for video monitors, the best defense is to buy one that uses Wi-Fi, he said, and never rely on a manufacturer's claim that it is secure.
The most recent review of baby monitors by Consumer Reports, published in April 2007, recommended digital monitors. While they are more difficult to hack than earlier analog versions, they're not the most secure.
But Liz Gumbinner, the editor of coolmompicks.com, a website that highlights gadgets and goods for mom and baby, said parents needn't worry if they have a non-WiFi video monitor.
"There are better ways to case your home than to listen and view your baby monitor," she said. "Unless a baby is going to utter your bank account in their sleep, I wouldn't worry about it."
Pete Herzog, the managing director of the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies, concurred. "The risk of a false positive makes it unlikely to be used by criminals to scope out a home," he said. "I think it's more a risk for those worried about nosy neighbors or paparazzi."
Keromytis, the Columbia computer science professor, said manufacturers could make baby video monitors more secure by hiring a designer to reconfigure components and utilize existing technology, which would add about $10 to the retail price.
Another Thing to Worry About
Coincidentally, Keromytis' wife is due to give birth later this week. They won't be buying a new monitor, instead sticking to the old audio monitor they already have.
"There are lots of things to worry about in New York City," he said. "You have to decide what you want to worry about."