What we may have is "a failure to communicate!" In previous Lockdown articles we have examined the vulnerabilities of mechanical locks and how easily most of them can be compromised. Even some popular high security locks can be easily bypassed -- if you thought that installing a deadbolt would provide all the protection you may need, think again.
But if your locks will not adequately protect you, then what will? How about a portable alarm system that is affordably priced, a cinch to install, and virtually immune to the most common cause of false alarms (keypad entry errors), maybe something like the LaserShield. Still, the question arises: if a determined burglar can easily bypass this wireless system with some simple and abundant technology, is that too much of a risk to your home security?
The LaserShield system
LaserShield has developed a keypad-free consumer-level alarm system that allows a homeowner to install and make it operational in about five minutes with no tools, no skill, and little hassle. The systems are being sold through national distribution Circuit City and other outlets to a potential market that is estimated at forty million residents.
LaserShield's target buyers are low to middle income homeowners or renters who live in apartments, houses or locations where electronic protection is desired at a very affordable price and with absolutely no installation issues, and, preferably, without the need for professional installers. According to LaserShield, their customers want to protect their TVs, home audio systems, jewelry (and presumably other valuables) against attacks by the casual or opportunistic thief. Many buyers cannot afford a professionally-installed alarm system, nor does it make sense to invest in a wired system that cannot be removed when the renter moves residences. The company has even included the Spanish speaking segment of its market by programming voice prompts in both Spanish and English -- smart!
The LaserShield alarm system was designed as a cost-effective solution for a certain class of homeowners to provide additional basic security. When I interviewed Clint O'Connor, the chief architect of this product, we talked about who would use LaserShield and where and what was really required in such a system. I agree with the premise that a very high percentage of burglaries are committed by criminals with little to no sophistication. In such cases the primary function of an alarm system, any alarm system, is to detect an intrusion at the earliest possible moment and warn the burglar that if he sticks around he is likely to get caught because the police are coming.
As the design of this product took form, the company adopted a philosophy that it was not concerned with the more "sophisticated" attacks like the one we'll demonstrate here. The result was an alarm system that offers some very clever and sophisticated options, but may be subject to some very simple bypass techniques. So the question becomes one of security. What is sufficient for the intended LaserShield user? Will casual thieves avoid a house with a security sign in the front yard that advertises an alarm system? Or will such a sign be an invitation if they understand how a particular system can be circumvented?
Sure, the product will certainly do, in limited fashion, what a professionally-installed monitoring system accomplishes: detect the presence of an intruder, warn both the intruder and occupants, and send an immediate message to a central station alarm center so the police can be dispatched. But as it turns out, the motion sensor can be demonstrably bypassed by keying a transmitter -- in this case, a Motorola walkie talkie -- while walking through a space that is protected by a LaserShield system.
The prison boss in Cool Hand Luke said it best: "What we [may] have here is a failure to communicate." If a burglar walks into your house with an inexpensive two-way radio that is set to the LaserShield frequency, there will definitely be a failure of communications between the motion sensors and master alarm unit. If that occurs then nobody will be notified of an alarm condition and you will be at risk. The video demonstration of this hack is here. Note: the sensor in the background with its red light indicating that it is tripped, but the report is never received by the Master Alarm Unit while the walkie talkie is keyed.
My real problem is the trade-offs between convenience and security which had to be made by the engineers at LaserShield in order to offer this kind of a product. A simplistic system offers fewer options for which you pay less. A totally wireless system such as this one allows real ease of installation and placement of trips. The user voice prompts are clear and concise and warn of a variety of fault conditions, making it easy to arm and disarm with confidence. The system can literally be installed in five minutes without difficulty but there is a price to be paid for this convenience, and that is security. In my view it is not designed nor should be used for business applications.
So the bottom line is this: if you need a basic alarm system that is well made, inexpensive, easy to implement and will do a good job of detecting entry into your residence then the LaserShield will perform as advertised and will definitely provide the basic electronic security to the LaserShield target market. However, you must also be willing to accept the inherent risks of this type of system as described in our detailed report and accompanying videos. (See below.) If you think that you are a potential target of criminals and they might have the capability to acquire a UHF walkie-talkie to facilitate a burglary then the LaserShield is probably not for you.
Most common thieves just want to break in, steal what they can and leave. If they know there is an alarm or hear a siren they will probably retreat quickly. That is the purpose of any alarm system. In that regard, LaserShield may have broken new ground in providing a very user-friendly and reliable system. As to the jamming vulnerability, everyone needs to know about the possibility -- but at the end of the day a thief may also cut phone lines with the same effect.
We further analyzed their hardware and software and produced a very detailed report as to our findings which can be found at in.security.org, together with a comprehensive video showing how the system works and how it can be defeated. (See also: video interview with Tony Dohrmann, CEO of LaserShield.) We asked one of their competitors (one of the largest alarm component manufacturers in the industry) if they too would analyze the LaserShield system in terms of hardware and functionality. They agreed and reported to us that this system was quite good, much to their surprise.
If you are contemplating the purchase of a burglar alarm system for your house, apartment, condo, dorm room, trailer, RV, boat or even a second house then you may want to invest the time to read the detailed report. Such a purchase should not be considered as trivial; we thought it was important to produce a comprehensive report so you could make an informed decision.
Alarm systems come in many different forms and offer an incredible array of options. Some are cheap and others are very expensive. Most are professionally installed and for good reason. Reliable detection of intrusion requires expertise in system setup, selection of sensors, and choice of monitoring services. The higher-end systems primarily rely on wired sensors rather than wireless and for good reason. Virtually all wireless sensors can be defeated by radio jamming, and is one of the well-kept secrets in the industry. So if you have a wireless system from ADT, GE, Honeywell (Ademco), Sentrol, Linear, Skylink, X10, ITI you may actually be at the same risk of bypass as the LaserShield.
The system you choose may eventually protect you, your family, and your possessions from theft, robbery, home invasion or vandalism so the decision is important and must be one that is based upon detailed information. Buying a security system is not like the purchase of an appliance, computer or other electronic gizmo; it literally can save your life so you need to make an informed choice.
Marc Weber Tobias is an investigative attorney and security specialist living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He represents and consults with lock manufacturers, government agencies and corporations in the U.S. and overseas regarding the design and bypass of locks and security systems. He has authored five police textbooks, including Locks, Safes, and Security, which is recognized as the primary reference for law enforcement and security professionals worldwide. The second edition, a 1400 page two-volume work, is utilized by criminal investigators, crime labs, locksmiths and those responsible for physical security. A ten-volume multimedia edition of his book is also available online. His website is security.org and his blog is in.security.org. Marc welcomes reader comments and email.