Tag Archives: alarm industry

‘Smart’ Homes Can Have Stupid Features

Do people want faster response by the police to a burglar alarm, or do they want lights they can control remotely? That is a core question that the alarm industry faces as it undergoes seismic changes. Does the alarm industry sell security, including fast response by police, or does it sell the “connected” home?

Many are leaning toward an emphasis on the connected home. That’s why Google bought Nest, known for its smart thermostats, for $3.2 billion in early 2014 and then announced recently that Nest would buy Dropcam for $555 million. Dropcam uses small cameras to provide security services, though not as the alarm industry is doing. The alarm industry connects cameras to a central station, where feeds are monitored and police notified if there is a break-in. Dropcam uses motion sensors to alert the user to any possible problems; the user then checks the video feed from his phone or computer and, if necessary, contacts the authorities for help.

Whether the alarm industry chooses to emphasize fast police response or follows Google and tries to offer broad home automation solutions, there will be broad ripple effects, including for insurers.

From a risk-management perspective, there are two issues. The first is whether the home automation improves police response and reduces losses. Ultimately, however, the second issue is even more crucial: Do the new home automation services actually introduce new risks and enable high-dollar losses through remote vandalism, including frozen pipes and catastrophic water damage?

Concerning the first issue: At a time when declining budgets are forcing police to reduce the number of officers responding to property crimes, home automation has hijacked a large slice of the alarm industry and is minimizing police response. Catching burglars and reducing property crime has become secondary to lifestyle convenience features and home automation revenue streams.

Increasingly, alarm/security is proposed as just one more feature in home automation. But the new offerings generally use legacy alarm solutions, which have a false alarm rate of 98%. As a result, these alarms are only assigned a priority 3 by law enforcement, so police response is slow, if it happens at all. By contrast, new alarms – based on monitored video feeds, and with break-ins verified — are treated like a crime in progress, a priority 1. Responding officers run hot because they expect to make an arrest.

In an effort to confuse the issue and continue to sell legacy alarms, home automation suppliers sell the ability of the homeowner to remotely view cameras in the home as “video verification.” This claim is exploiting a naïve consumer. Home automation cameras are not monitored by the central station, and they do not provide faster police response. Remote viewing by the owner ends up being a glorified nanny cam.

Unfortunately for insurers, home automation has become the primary message of some of the historical burglar alarm companies, which have reengineered their companies. Security companies are now chasing smartphone thermostats and Wi-Fi-based lighting instead of focus on delivering police response to an alarm.

A joint study by the San Bernardino, CA, sheriff and police departments in 2011 found that the arrest rate for a traditional burglar alarm was only 0.08%. A five-year study completed by Pharmacists Mutual in 2013 found that, when police response was less than five minutes, the officers made arrests 21% of the time. This means that the likelihood of an arrest for monitored, video-verified alarms and priority police response is more than 250 times better.

Video-verified alarm systems monitored by a professional central station represent real loss control tforthe insurer. Video-verified alarms reduce claims. Monitored video alarms actually mitigate losses by delivering faster police response to an actual incident. Police make arrests and prevent the loss itself.

Concerning the second risk-management issue: Home automation introduces new threats for the insurer – catastrophic claims caused by remote vandalism. Imagine the damage to a Minnesota home whose furnace was turned off by malicious hackers while the owners were on a winter vacation. The costs for bursting water pipes and flooding the property for days would make most burglary claims seem paltry in comparison.

The problem is that home automation and the connected home create risks that have not been adequately identified and considered by insurers. Much has been written regarding identity or data theft caused by hackers exploiting weak computer networks for passwords and credit card info. The financial losses from this type of crime have had little impact on traditional property/casualty insurers, but home automation changes the risk exposure because now remote vandals can invade the network and take over the infrastructure and appliances of a homeowner to maximize damage without ever setting foot on the property. Home automation devices become a Trojan horse for vandals, and the more devices are connected, the larger the risk as each device introduces another potential hole.

The press is finally beginning to educate readers about the issue. A July 30, 2014, article in Computerworld headlined “Home Automation Systems Rife with Holes” explains, “A variety of network-controlled home automation devices lack basic security controls, making it possible for attackers to access their sensitive functions, often from the Internet, according to researchers from security firm Trustwave. Some of these devices are used to control door locks, surveillance cameras, alarm systems, lights and other sensitive systems.” Security Today published an article on July 16, 2014, about how hacked light bulbs can reveal a homeowner’s Wi-Fi password and actually give the hackers control over the home automation system itself. This excerpt describes the problem:

“It’s all the new craze: the connected or smart home, where at the touch of a button on your smartphone you can dim your living room lights, close the garage…. But, with sophisticated technology comes risk if you aren’t vigilant in applying the latest security updates to your smart home. In fact, the latest risk involves LED light bulbs that can be hacked to change the lighting and reveal the homeowner’s Wi-Fi Internet password.”

The entire home automation system is only as secure as its weakest link or device – devices that need to be kept updated with security patches as flaws are discovered. Unfortunately, many of these connected home devices are static and not even capable of being updated with new software patches. The connected home is now the Wild West of home security, and property/casualty insurers are likely going to be the ones left paying the bill.

The bottom line is that the home automation industry introduces threats that run counter to the risk mitigation insurers have traditionally found by using discounts to promote monitored alarm systems. In analyzing these risks, David Bryan, Trustwave researcher, states, “Anybody could have turned off my lights, turned on and off my thermostat, changed settings or [done] all sorts of things that I would expect to require some sort of authorization.” The proliferation of devices, protocols, apps and portals mean that the problem is getting more complex instead of calming down.

It is time for insurance companies to review their “alarm discount” and make sure that the discount encourages behavior that actually reduces claims. The alarm industry is promoting home automation to the consumer, but the features and benefits don’t actually reduce risk. Underwriters can reduce risk and minimize losses by encouraging their policy holders to install monitored, video-verified alarm systems that deliver faster police response. Any insurance policy that offers discounts for home automation systems is encouraging new and unexplored risks posed by remote vandalism, and possibly worse.

Modern Burglar Alarms Remain One Of The Best Defenses Against Losses

In the past few weeks, we have published two articles by Keith Jentoft, the Partnership Liaison of the nonprofit Partnership for Priority Video Alarm Response, regarding the use of video verified alarms. Recently, David Margulies of the Margulies Communications Group approached us and asked if we would be willing to publish an article which provides a different perspective. David's article appears below.

There is no question today that alarm intrusion systems are often one of the first lines of defense against insured losses from crime. According to the Electronic Security Association, which represents the majority of companies in the alarm industry, the breakdown for intrusion alarms shows them protecting virtually every type of insured business enterprise:

  • residential: 40%
  • commercial (office buildings, retail, banks, etc.): 30%
  • institutional (schools, hospitals, churches, etc.): 11%
  • industrial (factories, warehouses, utilities, etc.): 12%
  • government (local, state, federal Facilities): 7%

In a national survey of police chiefs, 90 percent acknowledged that alarms both deter burglary attempts and increase the probability of a burglar being apprehended. Of the nation's approximately 18,000 public safety agencies, only a handful require confirmation from a business owner, witnesses or security guard before police are dispatched to an alarm site.

One of the most in-depth and comprehensive studies of the effectiveness of alarm systems in preventing losses was conducted by the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice (SCJ). The study found that in Newark, New Jersey, residential burglar alarm systems decreased crime. While other studies have concluded that most burglars avoid alarm systems, this is the first study to focus on alarm systems while scientifically ruling out other factors that could have impacted the crime rate.

Researchers concentrated on analyzing crime data provided by the Newark Police Department. “Data showed that a steady decrease in burglaries in Newark between 2001 and 2005 coincided with an increase in the number of registered home burglar alarms,” said study author Dr. Seungmug (a.k.a. Zech) Lee. “The study credits the alarms with the decrease in burglaries and the city's overall crime rate.”

In short, the study found that an installed burglar alarm makes a dwelling less attractive to the would-be and active intruders, and protects the home without displacing burglaries to nearby homes.

The study also concluded that the deterrent effect of alarms is felt in the community at large. “Neighborhoods in which burglar alarms were densely installed have fewer incidents of residential burglaries than in neighborhoods with fewer burglar alarms,” the study noted.

The alarm industry has aggressively addressed the issue of false alarms because of concerns that they were putting a strain on police resources. In 2003, industry leaders created the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC) which is comprised of four major North American security associations — Canadian Security Association (CANASA), Security Industry Association (SIA), Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) and the Electronic Security Association (ESA) — representing one voice for the alarm industry on alarm management issues. The Security Industry Alarm Coalition's primary charter is to significantly reduce calls for service while strengthening the lines of communication with law enforcement professionals and end users.

“Eighty-five percent of the nation's alarm systems generate no calls to the police in any given year,” said Stan Martin, Executive Director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition. “People who say that 98 percent of reported burglar alarms are false are trying to justify ending police response to alarms without human verification of a crime (verified response). These people have failed to perform their due diligence on public safety and industry best practices.”

Working in a partnership with law enforcement, the Security Industry Alarm Coalition has helped communities significantly reduce the number of alarm calls made to police by promoting industry and law enforcements best practices including:

  • The model ordinance requires registration of all alarm systems.
  • Two phone calls by alarm companies to alarm owners prior to calling police.
  • Technology designed into systems to avoid accidental triggering.
  • Fines for alarm owners who create unnecessary dispatches.
  • Suspending response to the chronic abusers.

According to a study just released by the Urban Institute, these steps allow communities to maintain police response while conserving law enforcement resources. The study notes that Montgomery County, Maryland was able to save $6 million in costs and reduce alarm calls by 60 percent. The reduction in alarm calls from 44,000 to 16,000 came despite a significant increase in the number of alarm systems.

According to Glen Mowrey, the National Enforcement Liaison of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition:

  • Marietta, Georgia reduced alarm calls 65 percent in two years with annual revenues of $223,050 in 2008 and $94,800 in 2009;
  • Johnson City, Tennessee reduced alarm calls 50.1 percent over a four-year period;
  • Union City, Tennessee showed a reduction of 55.4 percent over a four-year period; and,
  • during a 14-year period, the police department in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina brought down its percentage of alarm calls, out of total calls for service, from 20.1 percent to 2.4 percent annually, netting 13.5 police officers and an annual revenue in 2009 of $334,470, which includes a reimbursement for 2.5 full-time employees from an outsource company contracted to administer the billing and tracking component.

As new technology emerges, the Security Industry Alarm Coalition is at the forefront of helping develop standards and policies with its partners in the law enforcement community. “Alarm systems and technology are constantly changing and improving,” said Stan Martin, SIAC Executive Director. “Our major and long established trade and professional associations that support SIAC are constantly working to make sure there are standards in place to properly apply this technology.”

“The working relationship between public safety agencies and the alarm industry has never been stronger,” said Mowrey, not only the National Enforcement Liaison of SIAC, but also the former Deputy Chief of Police in Charlotte/Mecklenburg, North Carolina. “Eleven states have created state-wide committees to work with the industry on alarm issues and they all have adopted some form of SIAC's model alarm ordinance.”

The Security Industry Alarm Coalition also serves as the industry's voice working with national law enforcement organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs Association.

Through the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, the alarm industry is always available as a resource to the insurance industry for questions, concerns, or more information on how the alarm industry can continue to protect the insured from unnecessary losses.