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Future Tools: ZoneMinder

by on November 20, 2020

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews

Open source surveillance systems

Given our recent discussions about surveillance, especially in the context of a pandemic, it makes sense to take a moment to examine open source surveillance systems. After all, surveillance is seductive. As it increases in accessibility and ease of use, more people will be tempted to use or play with such systems.

Partly in response to the pandemic, but also as a desire to watch our animals, we’ve been experimenting with and deploying surveillance technology on our rural property.

We currently have 8 cameras, and a desire to install many more.

While there is a modest security dynamic to their use, that’s not their primary feature. Watching the animals without them realizing they’re being watched is thoroughly enjoyable. We learn a lot about them this way and they provide us with near endless entertainment.

This translates into our perception of the property as a studio, a place to make media and capture special moments. The cameras, and their perspective/position are influenced less by a need to secure or stalk but instead a desire to frame and stage events and episodes.

We’re not alone in coming to this realization, as security cameras in general are rarely used for actual security, but when actively archived and automatically analyzed can produce a plethora of funny or engaging content. At least that’s what TikTok and YouTube demonstrate when it comes to what footage is shared.

Our current system is based on Ubiquiti gear, which we featured in our Future Fibre series. Since I was using their wireless equipment to upgrade my Wi-Fi, I decided to also try out their surveillance gear.

Most contemporary surveillance systems are cloud based, and either want to charge a subscription for that cloud service, or at the very least take the data you supply them. Not only did I not want to pay for an ongoing service, I didn’t want my precious bandwidth being taken up by video feeds that would be generated and used on the property.

Ubiquity makes network video recorder software available for free, that you can install on any machine you want, in my case an old linux server, and host the video files and archives locally. This has been an easy and free way for us to have video surveillance without the need for a fast broadband connection.

However we’ve recently come to the realization that a surveillance system is not exactly what we’re looking for. On a basic level it is, but given that our focus is not necessarily security, we want to play with more open source systems, to learn how we might bend them towards our own needs.

In the short term this means adding more cameras, from a diverse range of sources and manufacturers. The Ubiquity system is designed to work with their cameras and equipment. I want to start using Raspberry Pi cameras and systems as part of our sprawling network.

This has led me to ZoneMinder. “A full-featured, open source, state-of-the-art video surveillance software system”.

There are a lot of open source surveillance systems available. On a basic level it’s not complicated, and there are a wide range of components, like “motion” that enable motion based video capture.

However ZoneMinder stands out due to a combination of age and options. It is not the easiest, nor is it the prettiest, but it does feature the widest range of features and configurations that provide for more granular capabilities.

One feature in particular is the ability to integrate just about any kind of camera. This is a big reason why I’m interested, but not the main one.

While ZoneMinder may not be the system I end up with, I feel it is a good system to get a sense of what a surveillance system is capable of. Due to both feature set and flexibility.

My long term goal is to assemble a system that meets our needs as artists and media makers, as well as stewards of both the land and animals.

ZoneMinder is not the easiest application available, and it does require a certain level of pre-requisite knowledge in terms of linux as well as CCTV systems. However even if you don’t have that knowledge, it’s all open source and a search query away.

There are a lot of different ways to install ZoneMinder, and it can be deployed on all sorts of hardware, including a raspberry pi:

While ZoneMinder is free to use, there is a modest ecosystem surrounding it that does feature some paid products and support.

One in particular is zmNinja, which is a mobile remote access app that is relatively cheap and also has extensive features.

It costs just over $5 in app stores, but it is still free an open source, so you could use it on your own for free if you really wanted.

Similarly companies will use things like a raspberry pi and ZoneMinder as a way to bundle and sell hardware:

While ZoneMinder like all surveillance systems leans towards security applications, other users also recognize that the application of this kind of surveillance isn’t always security:

ZoneMinder is not just an old open source project, but an open source project that reflects an older open source culture:

Speaking of open source, this is a relevant and worrisome article:

When the open source concept emerged in the ’90s, it was conceived as a bold new form of communal labor: digital barn raisings. If you made your code open source, dozens or even hundreds of programmers would chip in to improve it. Many hands would make light work. Everyone would feel ownership.

Now, it’s true that open source has, overall, been a wild success. Every startup, when creating its own software services or products, relies on open source software from folks like Thornton: open source web-server code, open source neural-net code. But, with the exception of some big projects—like Linux—the labor involved isn’t particularly communal. Most are like Bootstrap, where the majority of the work landed on a tiny team of people.

Sadly this is also the case with ZoneMinder

Although that was three years ago and the current crew seems to be with the times.

This is our twenty first issue in the Future Tools series.

The first was on Keybase, a service designed to make encryption easy to use. The second was on Pi-Hole, free and open source software designed to make it easy for you to block the digital advertisements on your network(s). The third was on Tor and the so called dark web, enabling secure surfing for all. The fourth was on Matrix and Riot as an alternative to Slack. The fifth was on democracy.earth and quadratic voting. The sixth was on the Brave browser. The seventh was on Rocket Chat. The eight was on pol.is. The ninth was on Decidim. The tenth was on Mastodon. The eleventh was on BigBlueButton. The twelfth was on the video conferencing tool Jitsi. The thirteenth was on ProtonMail. The fourteenth was on Ghost, the headless content management system. The fifteenth issue was on DECODE. The sixteenth was on Parrot OS. The seventeenth was on Qubes OS. The eighteenth was on Open Drone Map. The nineteenth was on Zorin OS. The twentieth was on OBS Studio. The twenty-first was on HestiaPi.

If you have any questions about these tools we’ve profiled, or suggestions/requests for tools that we should profile in the future. As always let us know. #metaviews

“Future Tools” is a recurring series in the Metaviews newsletter where we share some of the tools and concepts that you’ll need to protect yourself in the now and near future.

Finally, check out this 2018 episode of FLOSS Weekly that featured ZoneMinder:

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