The Crime-Fighting, Life-Saving Webcam

Aug. 25, 2006 — -- In what may stand as testament to the ubiquity of the increasingly watchful eye of the camera's lens, a Texas man was able to help police in Liverpool, England, foil a burglary while the man watched a Beatles-related webcam on his computer, according to Reuters.

The man called Merseyside police when he saw several intruders breaking into a sports store.

"We did get a call from someone in Dallas who was watching on a webcam that looks into the tourist areas, of which Mathew Street is one because of all the Beatles stuff," a Merseyside police spokeswoman told Reuters. "He called directly through to police here."

While we hear many tales of the dark side of webcams, such as their being used by predators to prey on young people, we hear less often about the thwarted crimes and life-saving actions that webcams make possible.

Saving Mom From Thousands of Miles Away

Last November Tore Jordal, who was living in the Philippines, logged on to his mother Karin's webcam to check on the 69-year-old Norwegian artist then living in Pinon Hills, Calif. He was shocked and dismayed to find the woman -- who is diabetic -- motionless on a couch.

Unable to rouse his mother with a phone call and receiving no response from authorities in the area, Tore reached out to his brother Ole who was living in Bergen, Norway, at the time.

Thanks to Ole's wife, Tammy, who is originally from Long Island, N.Y., they were able to get help, and five or 10 minutes later they watched from thousands of miles away as ambulance workers tended to Karin.

"I thank that camera and my sons for my life," she told the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende from her hospital bed.

Though the Jordals had purchased webcams just to curb the high cost of staying in touch over long distances via the telephone, the experience gave the family a new respect for the power of the technology.

"Now I see the Internet as a way to save lives. It's also a wonderful tool for people who live alone in some remote area and might need help," Ole said.

An increasing number of people use webcams to stay connected.

"When I was traveling to Germany after my son was born, I bought my wife a webcam and set it up so it would be a one-click activation," explained John Biggs, editor in chief of the technology blog "I was able to see the little one wiggle around on her lap from thousands of miles away, and it really brought home the fact that technology -- with all its negative connotations -- is also bringing us much closer together."

A Good Tool but Not a Panacea

While webcams are growing in use as security tools to watch for predators or to keep an eye on elderly or disabled loved ones, home security guru and former California police officer Bob Stuber warns not to rely too heavily on any one thing.

"That's where we get into trouble -- when you become too dependent on any one thing. That's when someone can get to you and take advantage of you," Stuber said. "It's one tool. It's great but don't stop there."

While Stuber doesn't think people should be deterred from using webcams as part of a comprehensive home security scheme, it's important to keep in mind that criminals will learn eventually how to get around them.

"With technology like this, at the very beginning you stand a chance of catching someone breaking into your house or something, but eventually they get savvy to it.They know where it is and how to bypass it," Stuber said. "It does have some value as a preventive tool in the beginning, but that doesn't last very long."

In some cases, the webcam can actually threaten one's safety, offering criminals, who understand how they work, a window into your world.

But don't panic. There are ways to protect yourself.

"If you don't take some basic security precautions, the prevalence of webcams in homes can be a very dangerous thing," said Biggs. "A dedicated hacker could use it to spy on the home, but, thankfully, there are safeguards in place. For example, most webcams light up when they are recording, which will give you an indication that something is going on. Many are also encrypted and password-protected."

Reuters contributed to this report.