Hack My House: ZoneMinder’s Keeping an Eye on the Place

Hacks are often born out of unfortunate circumstances. My unfortunate circumstance was a robbery– the back door of the remodel was kicked in, and a generator was carted off. Once the police report was filed and the door screwed shut, it was time to order cameras. Oh, and record the models and serial numbers of all my tools.

We’re going to use Power over Ethernet (POE) network cameras and a ZoneMinder install. ZoneMinder has a network trigger capability, and we’ll wire some magnetic switches to our network of PXE booting Pis, using those to inform the Zoneminder server of door opening events. Beyond that, many newer cameras support the Open Network Video Interface Forum (ONVIF) protocol and can do onboard motion detection. We’ll use the same script, running on the Pi, to forward those events as well.

Many of you have pointed out that Zoneminder isn’t the only option for open source camera management. MotionEyeOS, Pikrellcam, and Shinobi are all valid options.  I’m most familiar with Zoneminder, even interviewing them on FLOSS Weekly, so that’s what I’m using.  Perhaps at some point we can revisit this decision, and compare the existing video surveillance systems.

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Vibrosight Hears When You are Sleeping. It Knows When You’re Awake.

No matter how excited you are to dive headfirst into the “Internet of Things”, you’ve got to admit that the effort and expense of going full-on Jetsons is a bit off-putting. To smarten up your home you’ve generally got to buy all new products (and hope they’re all compatible) or stick janky after-market sensors on the gear you’ve already got (and still hope they’re all compatible). But what if there was a cheap and easy way to keep tabs on all your existing stuff? The answer may lie in Cold War era surveillance technology.

As if the IoT wasn’t already Orwellian enough, Vibrosight is a project that leverages a classic KGB spy trick to keep tabs on what’s going on inside your home. Developed by [Yang Zhang], [Gierad Laput] and [Chris Harrison], the project uses retro-reflective stickers and a scanning laser to detect vibrations over a wide area. With this optical “stethoscope”, the system can glean all kinds of information; from how long you’ve been cooking something in the microwave to whether or not you washed your hands.

The project takes its inspiration from the optical eavesdropping system developed by Léon Theremin in the late 1940’s. By bouncing a beam of light off of a window, Theremin’s gadget was able to detect what people inside the room were saying from a distance. The same idea is applied here, except now it uses an automated laser scanner and machine learning to turn detected vibrations into useful information that can be plugged into a home automation system.

For Vibrosight to “listen” to objects, the user needs to place retro-reflective tags on whatever they want to include in the system. The laser will periodically scan around the room looking for these tags. Once the laser finds a new tag, will add it to a running list of targets to keeps an eye on. From there Vibrosight is able to take careful vibration measurements which can provide all sorts of information. In the video after the break, Vibrosight is shown differentiating between walking, jogging, and running on a treadmill and determining what kind of hand tools are being used on a workbench. The team even envisions a future where Vibrosight-ready devices would “hum” their IP address or other identifying information to make device setup easier.

If all this talk of remote espionage at a distance has caught your interest, we’ve covered Theremin’s unique surveillance creations in the past, and even a way to jam them if you’re trying to stay under the radar.

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Down the DIY Rabbit Hole with a Shop AC Installation

There’s a fine line between a successful DIY project and one that ends in heartbreak. It’s subjective too; aside from projects that end up with fire trucks or ambulances in the driveway, what one DIYer would consider a disaster might be considered a great learning opportunity to someone else.

We’re pretty sure [Cressel] looks at his recent DIY mini-split AC installation for his shop as a series of teachable moments. Most folks leave HVAC work to the pros, but when you run a popular YouTube channel where you make your own lathe from scratch, you might be persuaded to give anything a go. [Cressel] did everything possible to do this job like a pro, going so far as to get training in the safe handling of refrigerants and an EPA certification so he knew how to charge the system correctly. He also sunk quite a bit of money into tools; between the manifold gauge set, vacuum pump, and various plumbing bits, that was a hefty $300 bite alone.

The install went well until he started charging the refrigerant, when a mistake with a fitting caused him to contaminate his nice, new batch of R-410A. Rather than back out and call a pro to finish up, [Cressel] stuck with it, to the tune of $900 in extra tools and materials needed to recover the old refrigerant safely and replace it with virgin R-410A. The video below has a condensed version of the whole tale.

It all worked out in the end, but at a cost that probably meets or exceeds what an HVAC contractor would have charged. [Cressel] seems like a glass-half-full kind of guy, though, so we expect he’s happy to have learned something new, and to have a bunch of neat new tools to boot.

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Hack My House: Running Raspberry Pi Without an SD Card

Many of us have experienced the pain that is a Raspberry Pi with a corrupted SD card. I suspect the erase-on-write nature of flash memory is responsible for much of the problem. Regardless of the cause, one solution is to use PXE booting with the Raspberry Pi 3. That’s a fancy way to say we’ll be booting the Raspberry Pi over the network, instead of from an SD card.

What does this have to do with Hacking My House? As I discussed last time, I’m using Raspberry Pi as Infrastructure by building them into the walls of every room in my house. You don’t want to drag out a ladder and screwdriver to swap out a misbehaving SD card, so booting over the network is a really good solution. I know I promised we’d discuss cabling and cameras. Think of this as a parenthetical article — we’ll talk about Ethernet and ZoneMinder next time.

So let’s dive in and see what the Preboot Execution Environment (PXE) is all about and how to use PXE with Raspberry Pi.

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RTL-SDR Paves Way To Alexa Controlled Blinds

You’d be forgiven for occasionally looking at a project, especially one that involves reverse engineering an unknown communication protocol, and thinking it might be out of your league. We’ve all been there. But as more and more of the devices that we use are becoming wireless black boxes, we’re all going to have to get a bit more comfortable with jumping into the deep end from time to time. Luckily, there are no shortage of success stories out there that we can look at for inspiration.

A case in point are the wireless blinds that [Stuart Hinson] decided would be a lot more useful if he could control them with his Amazon Alexa. There’s plenty of documentation on how to get Alexa to do your bidding, so he wasn’t worried about that. The tricky part was commanding the wireless blinds, as all he had to go on was the frequency printed on the back of the remote.

Luckily, in the era of cheap RTL-SDR devices, that’s often all you need. [Stuart] plugged in his receiver and fired up the incredibly handy Universal Radio Hacker. Since he knew the frequency, it was just a matter of tuning in and hitting the button on the remote a couple times to get a good capture. The software then broke it down to the binary sequence the remote was sending out.

Now here’s where [Stuart] lucked out. The manufacturers took the easy way out and didn’t include any sort of security features, or even bother with acknowledging that the signal had been received. All he needed to do was parrot out the binary sequence with a standard 433MHz transmitter hooked up to an ESP8266, and the blinds took the bait. This does mean that anyone close enough can take control of these particular blinds, but that’s a story for another time.

We took a look at the Universal Radio Hacker a year or so back, and it’s good to see it picking up steam. We’ve also covered the ins and outs of creating your own Alexa skills, if you want to get a jump on that side of the project.

Hack My House: Raspberry Pi as Infrastructure

I finally had my own house. It was a repossession, and I bought it for a song. What was supposed to be a quick remodel quickly turned into the removal of most of the drywall in the house. There was a silver lining on this cloud of drywall dust and loose insulation. Rather than constantly retro-fitting cabling and gadgets in as needed, I could install everything ahead of time. A blank canvas, when the size of a house, can overwhelm a hacker. I’ve spent hours thinking through the infrastructure of my house, and many times I’ve wished for a guide written from a hacker’s perspective. This is that guide, or at least the start of it.

What do you want your smart house to do? And what do you want to be able to do in your smart house? For example, I wanted to be able to upgrade my cheap 120 V welder to a beefier 240 V model, so adding a 240 V plug in the garage was a must. As a bonus, that same 240 V circuit could be used for charging an electric car, if ever one is parked there.

“Ethernet everywhere” was my mantra. Try to imagine everywhere you might want to plug in a desktop, a laptop, an access point, or even a VoIP phone. I decided I wanted at least two Ethernet drops to each room, and tried to imagine the furniture layout in order to put them in convenient places.

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Photon Door Lock Swaps Keys for a POST Request

At this point we’re all well aware of the fact that there is some inherent danger involved when bringing “things” onto the Internet. Nobody wants to come home to a smoldering pile of ruble because their Internet connected toaster oven decided to get stuck on “Hades.” But even with the risks, occasionally we see projects that prove at least some intrepid hackers are managing to navigate the Internet of Things to solve real-world problems.

[Daniel Andrade] writes in to tell us about the Internet controlled entry system he’s setup at his new apartment, and while we imagine it’s not for everyone, we can’t deny it seems like it has improved his quality of life. Rather than giving all of his friends a copy of his key, he’s setup a system where anyone who has the appropriate link can “buzz” themselves in through the building’s existing intercom system.

Thanks to the old-school intercom setup, the hardware for this project is simple in the extreme. All [Daniel] needed was a relay to close the circuit on the door buzzer, and a way to fire it off. For his controller he chose the Photon from Particle, which is perhaps a bit overkill, but we all tend to work with what we’re personally comfortable with.

Most of the work went into the software, as [Daniel] ended up coming with two distinct ways to control the door lock over the Internet. The first method uses Blynk, which allows you to create slick visual interfaces for mobile devices. His second version is controlled with a POST request to a specific URL, which he likes because it gives him more flexibility as to how he can interact with the lock. Currently he has a simple web page setup that lets friends and family open the door by just clicking a button.

We’ve seen a similar setup using the Photon to open a garage door, and plenty of people have taken to using Blynk to control their home automation setups. All the tools are available for you to roll your own IoT gadgets, you just need to figure out what to do with the things…