What's the frequency: Monitors transmit video of unknowing families

What's the frequency: Monitors transmit video of unknowing families
SEATTLE -- The saying goes, "never wake a sleeping baby." But what if that baby is broadcast for all the neighbors to see?

From Ballard to Queen Anne and Greenlake to Phinney Ridge, KOMO News found unsuspecting families transmitting what's inside their homes without even knowing it.

And they're broadcasting through video baby monitors -- devices designed to give parents peace of mind. But a Problem Solvers investigation found these security devices can be anything but secure.

Monitors can be as cheap as $99. We purchased a model that retails for about $140, and transmits in the 900MHZ band. This frequency is left open by the Federal Communications Commission for all sorts of household uses, including radios, telephones and video cameras.

"It's interesting," said Seattle-based security consultant Eric Rachner. "Baby monitors, for the most part, don't really have security. Technologically, they're just little television stations. There's nothing to prevent you from being able to tune these devices to the channels they're transmitting on "

Rachner, who works for a South Lake Union security firm, is hired by companies to dig out holes in their software and respond when someone breaks into their computer systems. He says intercepting the signal on a baby monitor is simpler than you think.

"How easy is it to intercept? As easy as it is to just go and purchase the receiver for one of these baby monitors," he said. "I would say, it's not just easy; it's trivial."

The Problem Solvers decided to put it to the test. We connected our monitor, which acts as a receiver, in our car, and then drove around the city. Within moments, we started seeing nurseries, bedrooms, and hearing people's conversations. One baby's image we picked up from almost half a mile away.

Using the monitor in West Seattle, we spotted a baby boy sleeping quietly in his crib. Turns out he belongs to Dino Annest, who invested in two baby monitors, one for each of his kids.

"The main thing we were looking for is you want to keep an eye on your kid," Annest said. "I hate the fact that somebody could drive by and watch our baby on their monitor."

"Really, it's kind of shocking," said West Seattle resident Gordon Modin, when shown the image of a neighbor's child. "You want to feel secure around your neighborhood. You want to feel that what you have is actually protected, whether you have the drapes pulled or whether you have a baby monitor going on. You don't feel like you want to have people encouraged to look into your house."

It's not just cribs and children we spotted; our monitor also picked up conversations on cordless phones and more, including images inside people's homes, living rooms, and even an empty crib one local dog breeder uses to keep high-priced, highly-desirable Labradoodle puppies.

"Correct. You're seeing part of my basement," said local breeder Amy Gates as she looked at our monitor inside our car.

Curtains cover Gates' windows, but we were still able to see where she keeps her puppies because she uses baby monitors to keep track of them.

When asked whether she thought someone might be able to see inside her home through the monitor, Gates said, "It occurred to me. But in my particular case, I wasn't that concerned about it because I knew it was just the puppies. But I can see if it were somebody else - if it were a baby situation - that would be a lot more concerning."

So how can you address those concerns? Rachner says it can take a little more work and research, but it is well worth it in the end.

For starters, he recommends hard-wiring a camera - even a Web cam - and connecting that to a home computer system. For added protection, Rachner recommends making the system password-protected.

"Certainly a computer Web cam that doesn't broadcast wirelessly (would fix it)," he said. "Just running that software on computers on the home network would avoid this whole problem of transmitting the signal outside of the house."

Other recommendations are simple: turn your camera off when you're not using it.

"Most people, I think, are fairly conscientious about safeguarding their privacy," Rachner said, "so it's really puzzling to me personally when folks are pretty willing to go and put a transmitter in their home that broadcasts to anyone who cares to listen their private conversations…or anything else."

Annest, and the other parents interviewed, said he would make immediate changes to safeguard his two children.

"I'm an overprotective parent, and my first concern is being protective of my kids. And that's not protecting them, so I want to eliminate that," he said.

Editor's note: We contacted the company that makes the monitor we bought for a comment, but never heard back. Parents, however, report interference among monitors made by many companies, which indicates the issue isn't isolated to a single brand or manufacturer.