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Last Updated: Friday, 18 February, 2005, 12:53 GMT
How to catch a thief - with your PC
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Cambridgeshire police hailed a software engineer who caught a burglar on his webcam as "absolutely brilliant". But how easy is it to turn your home PC into a surveillance system?

"As long as you're not a complete technophobe, pretty much anyone can do it" says Simon Pickstock, editor of technology magazine PC Answers.

The first step is buying a webcam.

The tiny bug-eyed devices are available in most electronic shops and sell for anywhere between 15 and 60. They come with their own software enabling them to take snaps at regular intervals and store them on your PC's hard drive.

Many webcams also come with motion-sensitive software and the ability to select a frame of reference. For example, if you want to monitor your car, you can point the camera towards your driveway, then click and drag a box around your car.

While any movement inside your box would set the camera off, a pedestrian walking a few metres away wouldn't register.

Worldwide access

But this only solves half the problem because if a burglar steals your PC, he also steals his own mug shots. Duncan Grisby, the Cambridgeshire householder whose camera caught pictures of the burglar, found his answer by configuring the software to send the images to the web.

1. Wireless router - to connect to extra Wi-Fi cameras round house
2. Webcam - motion activated
3. Computer switched on, but with monitor off
4. Internet connection - to upload images to web
Simon Pickstock says: "If you have a broadband internet connection, your internet service provider (ISP) will probably supply you with a certain amount of web space.

"They will give you a username and password, which you can then put into the webcam software and have your pictures uploaded to your own web space."

The pictures can be accessed anywhere in the world - providing you can remember your username and password.

Boom industry?

For technophiles wanting more sophisticated gadgets, there are expensive alternatives.

A little over 200 will get you a wireless webcam, usually weatherproof, that can be attached anywhere around house - inside or out.

We even get people wanting to set them up for bird-watching
Chris Reed
Habitek online shop

And there are countless other devices enabling several cameras to be plugged into your PC at the same time, or allowing access without the need of a broadband connection.

So is this a boom industry? Has curtain-twitching been replaced by mouse-clicking?

According to Chris Reed, technical manager at online technology shop habitek.co.uk, all sorts of people find uses for the webcams.

"It does seem that many people want to set them up in their homes for security reasons," he says. "But we also get businesses using them for professional reasons, and we even get people wanting to set them up for bird-watching."

Cambridgeshire police has no official advice on webcams as a crime prevention tool.

But Det Sgt Alan Page did say it was "a pleasure" to see the burglar's face when he saw himself on film, caught red-handed.

See the images of the raid caught on webcam

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