Too Good to be True
6 hidden costs of “low-cost” cameras for the government market
- By Steve Gorski
- May 01, 2015
There has been a noticeable increase in mass-produced, lowcost
cameras available in the security industry. Low prices
can be hard to resist, especially considering the tight budgets
faced by government agencies at all levels. But an irresistible
price tag on a security camera can come with hidden costs—
some of which could impact the security of your government facility.
Low-cost cameras are an off-the-shelf, commodity-type product;
their extremely aggressive prices are generally created by reducedquality
camera components, minimized features, and less research
and development than you would find in other cameras. These necessary
concessions to create the attractive price point introduce several
potential problem areas: reliability, durability, performance, security,
support and reputation. Integrators and government customers
should fully consider these “hidden costs” before deciding to purchase
Let’s take a closer look at each of these potential problems:
Many mass-market products experience high failure rates. While that
is fine in some markets (one day your TV turns on; the next day it
doesn’t), performance and reliability are paramount in the government
security market. The camera—and the system—must be working
when a terrorist attack, shooting or other incident occurs.
An integrator’s reputation hinges on whether the camera (and entire
system) is working when there is an event. That alone is a steep
cost—not to mention the burden of quickly or repeatedly replacing a
low-cost camera. Buying a model that can be trusted and will remain
functional for years is actually worth a lot more than it might appear
on the surface. If you replace a $100 camera three or four times, or
if the camera isn’t working when it is needed most, then you should
have bought the less cost effective but overall more reliable camera in
the first place.
It takes planning and time to install a security camera, and it
should only happen once. It costs money to roll a truck out to a client’s
site, haul in equipment, climb a ladder and install a replacement
camera in a project that should be long completed. For integrators,
where time is money, and rolling a truck is a major expense, this can
pose a hidden cost that should be accounted for.
Low-cost cameras struggle with reliability because they aren’t built
from durable components, which cost more. If the product isn’t wellconstructed
and well-made, then the housing isn’t going to hold up.
Look at the ratings for the camera’s housing. For example, IP-66
refers to a housing’s ability to keep out foreign objects, such as dust
and water. IP stands for Ingress Protection. When you look at manufacturer
specifications, you should see the IP-66 rating—at a minimum.
Don’t be afraid to call the manufacturer for the certificate and
for references; ask them how the cameras have held up so far or if
there have been any issues. Anybody can say their camera is IP-66
(or any other specification). YouTube has plenty of videos featuring
“IP-66 testing,” but dunking a camera in a bucket does not constitute
IP-66 testing or certification.
In addition to lower-quality parts, some inexpensive cameras will
actually use refurbished parts or an older design that includes multiple
moving parts. Newer cameras that have undergone more research
and development more commonly use solid-state designs with no
moving parts. These have measurably lower failure rates.
Many government facilities gravitate toward PTZ cameras because
operators can move them around quite efficiently; however, the
downside of this is that inevitably when you’re panning and tilting the
camera, it will only record what it can see where you’ve positioned it.
This creates the possibility of missing an incident.
There are cameras available today that can capture the whole
180-degree view, so it doesn’t matter if you’re digitally zooming in
on another area. The device will always capture the whole 180-degree
view—without moving parts.
Similarly, many so-called day/night cameras are typically
equipped with a mechanical IR cut filter that is moved out of the way
for “night” mode. To do away with moving parts, look for a monochrome
camera, which not only provides better image quality in extremely
low light, but will also be less prone to failure over time.
All camera companies will claim to have reliable, durable cameras
with high performance. Just because that’s what it says on the web
site or the box doesn’t mean that is what you are going to get. Ink on
a box is not performance in the field. I’ve spoken with too many integrators
who have to deal with sub-par performance issues after the
installation. They are tinkering with cameras to accommodate poor
low-light performance, transmission issues and more. Talk about a
hidden headache. Run the cameras through their paces, read reviews,
talk to actual users and make sure they really do perform (especially,
if the cameras are claiming features that seem to be high end).
If you are considering a camera where the price seems “too good
to be true,” do your research. It is the best thing you can do to protect
yourself. Reach out to the manufacturer and ask for references. They
should be able to provide you with a list of current customers—ideally,
some of which are also in the government market. Existing customers’
feedback is a huge indicator of the experience you will have.
Speak with a few customers before you make a buying decision.
Ask how many cameras they have installed, if they came programmed
or with the listed features as promised, how long they have been in operation,
what issues they have had (if any), and what their overall experience
has been working with the company. If a company has been
putting out a sub-par product and is just selling on price, they won’t have a lot of quality customer testimonials. That is a huge red flag.
Low-cost cameras can take shortcuts on security, yet high-profile
hacking incidents have exposed the importance of firewalls, user
authentication and solid standard security practices at a minimum.
Don’t get caught installing cameras that can be easily hacked.
You can increase the security of your camera by knowing where
the camera is manufactured and where all the components come
from. Consider this: To closely control security, the Department of
Defense (DoD) only allows certain brands of smartphones into its
facilities. DoD officials have to verify that a smartphone’s chip and
components are free from bugs, backdoor viruses and hidden coding
that can be activated remotely. Because codes and programming can
easily be written into electronic components, including camera components,
it is something an integrator should be able to account for
in order to win projects in government markets. The last thing any
government agency wants is to be connected to a camera that’s been
programmed to record video, audio or sensitive information without
your knowledge. Such a device in a government facility could
quickly lead to concerns over national security.
It takes time and investment to include open standards, such as
ONVIF, in a camera. This has led some companies to avoid open
standards completely and suggest they are linked to potential security
issues. However, open standards are unquestionably the future of
the industry. Responsible manufacturers will invest in the testing and
preparation needed to bring products to market that both support
standards and are secure.
It may not seem like a big hidden cost now, but if you end up spending
hours figuring out how to read a poorly written manual, or too much
time on the phone solving one issue, you’ll wish you had assessed the
component more thoroughly. Your time and aggravation levels are
important, so look into what kind of support you will receive for the
cameras, and make sure your integrator offers a reliable customer service
support team. Specifically ask a manufacturer’s references about
their support experience.
The wrong camera can cost an integrator his or her reputation, which
is priceless. That is the highest “hidden cost” of all. Make sure that
you are offering products to your customers that you feel comfortable
selling and know will perform. You can’t subject your customer
to multiple service calls and the hassle of product replacement and
expect a glowing review. Failed low-cost cameras will cost you both
money and your reputation every single time.
Instead of just reading the price on the sell sheet or that first email,
do your research on the cameras and the manufacturer, talk
to your peers, read reviews, and put the cameras through rigorous
testing. Make sure you are doing business with a manufacturer that
can back up their performance claims. Get the details before making
a buying decision and consider the six hidden costs of low-cost
cameras before determining if a low-cost camera is right for your
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Security Today.