A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 7, 2016

How the Super Rich Are Using Technology To Make Their Homes Inviolable

Privacy is a luxury. All it takes to acquire is money and technology. Which, come to think of it, is not unlike the economy it protects. JL

Hugo Cox reports in the Financial Times:

Privacy is perhaps the greatest luxury anyone can buy, hence the trend for properties hidden from prying eyes and online searches. Complex machine-learning technology makes sense of the data gleaned from infrared, thermal imaging and video cameras. Recognition algorithms distinguish the patterns of animals from human snoopers. Prize collectibles are painted with a DNA solution; a stolen asset register alerts dealers and police in the event of a theft.
If you had to choose a country in which to be kidnapped — which is, granted, an unlikely eventuality — consider Ecuador. The average rate for freeing a kidnap hostage there is roughly $10,000; potential embarrassment or personal injury can be avoided with a quick phone call to the captors, who will probably be a group of local workers looking to supplement their income, says Fred Finan of security company 3e International.
Moreover — and this may provide some reassurance or it may not — the local criminal fraternity are unlikely to leave you awestruck by their ingenuity. The biggest inconvenience arising from a spate of thefts at a valuable Ecuadorean livestock farm recently is that the burglars keep cutting the broadband connection believing it to be the alarm. The break ins, the farmer suspects, are being carried out by his own employees probably with the help of the police (they clearly need it). His current strategy is to leave a few thousand dollars to ensure they leave happy and without incident — like mince pies at the foot of the chimney for a criminal Santa Claus.
Even a burglar alarm isn’t much use when the local bobbies are a 20-minute drive away
This quaintly intuitive approach to personal security would attract few adherents in today’s most desirable global postcodes where, spurred by the latest technology, breaking and entering is fast becoming mission impossible.
In London, wining and dining prospective Russian homebuyers now includes fielding questions from their room-sized bodyguards on the identity of the neighbours or the ease of emergency helicopter evacuation, says Trevor Abrahmson, managing director of Glentree International. The Saudi Arabian royals served by Knight Frank’s Alasdair Pritchard have got more jumpy since the war in Yemen and the growing risks posed by Isis, he says. Middle Eastern royals won’t even look at an English country estate if it has a footpath running through the grounds.
The whizz bangs start at a property’s front door. For the most discerning, fingerprint-activated locks are a must, says Heyrick Bond-Gunning, chief executive of S-RM, a top-end security company. Programmable staff keys can limit when, and for how long, staff can gain access, as well as controlling where in the house they can roam. Privacy is perhaps the greatest luxury anyone can buy, hence the trend for properties hidden from prying eyes and online searches
To keep both animate and inanimate house contents safe, vinyl polymer coatings make windows blast-resistant, to deter the traditional smash-and-grab raid. Fast-acting security shutters can block off key rooms, creating secure areas in the event of a break in. However, the best retreat in an emergency is a safe room. Typically, owners choose the main bedroom, reinforcing it with a steel door and strengthened walls; if the home hasn’t got one already, buyers will commonly fit one before they move in, says Abrahmson. Prize collectibles are painted with a unique DNA solution, meaning they can be identified anywhere; a stolen asset register alerts dealers, auction houses and police in the event of a theft. If you still hanker for a good old-fashioned safe, make sure it has two codes: one for normal use, the other for when you’re being forced to open it, simultaneously alerting the police or your security team.
Helping to secure the perimeters is a new wave of artificial intelligence. Complex machine-learning technology makes sense of the visual data gleaned from infrared, thermal imaging and conventional video cameras. The resultant recognition algorithms are able to distinguish the movement patterns of errant animals, say, from human snoopers, leaving the fox and badger populations surrounding prize real estate in the UK to resume their night-time business unmolested by malfunctioning technology.
Each of the 19 entrances to the plush Wentworth Estate in Surrey, for example, are monitored by live police cameras, allowing number plates to be checked against the nation’s central crime database, says estate manager James Periton.
Surveillance inside the home has become ubiquitous, yet hidden. Tell-tale signs are smoke detectors that have been placed near the corner of a room, rather than in the centre; a thermostat or heating control installed at a height that is hard to reach; an unsightly electrical junction box one would expect to be find in a cupboard. Each may contain a concealed camera.
Neil Barber, of Fullstop Security which advises top-end developers, says a decent sized house in a plush London neighbourhood would have 50 such cameras on average — a snip at roughly £20,000 all in, he says, plus £3,000 a year to have them monitored. (Barber installed one in his son’s bedroom in place of a baby alarm; when he was tall enough to reach the lens the child stuck Blu-Tac over it).
Barber says cameras installed in a house on The Bishops Avenue, Hampstead, are used to monitor staff. It means the owner, who is abroad much of the time, can spy on his army of gardeners, cooks and assistant staff wherever he is in the world.
Face recognition will soon relieve him of the burden. Huge sums spent on deep-learning algorithms for Facebook (to speed up the process of tagging individuals in photographs) and Google (to improve the accuracy of image searches) are improving intruder detection. Users of Netatmo, a Paris-based start-up, install a camera in their hallway, which will “learn” the identity of regular visitors using cues such as the distance between their eyes, the shape of their nose or the contour of their jaw. When it sees someone it doesn’t recognise, the owner is alerted and can view the suspect via an app on his mobile phone before alerting police of the intrusion. After a recent burglary in Paris, the homeowner — a Netatmo customer — was immediately able to give police video footage of the break in and a suspect was promptly arrested.
When it comes to attitudes to prevention, the world’s super-rich seem to divide neatly between the paranoid and the shockingly lax.
Landed Britons are firmly in the latter category. On a recent visit to one prospective client, 3e International’s Finan walked up to the front door, rang the bell and was ushered promptly past several Rodin sculptures in the hall. There was no gatehouse, no identity check and no visible alarm system in operation. “Even an alarm isn’t much use when the local bobbies are a 20-minute drive away,” he says.
“Country houses are hard to protect, partly because they are big and partly because those who live in them are fairly relaxed,” says Bond-Gunning. Knowing that taxi drivers are often inveterate gossips, he likes to see how much information he can learn about the house, its layout and its residents’ daily routines on his way from the train station to the property. Barber is regularly horrified at how many burglary victims he meets who never learnt how to turn on their alarm systems.
As you would expect, the paranoid group include those from countries where security considerations are more pressing. In London, Russian and eastern European customers favour visible muscle, plenty of perimeter security and a fleet of armoured cars, says Pritchard. When one of his Saudi clients bought an estate in Oxfordshire the estate manager’s first job was to go around strengthening all the bridges to support the new owner’s armoured vehicles.
Developers in safe countries concede that their security features are designed to handle fears conceived in treacherous ones. “Maybe they don’t feel so secure in Colombia or Venezuela so those feelings follow them over here,” says Lewis Birdman, of his prospective Latin American buyers at One Thousand Museum in Miami. Five per cent of the cost of the development, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, will go on safety-related features, he says. You won’t move in until the end of the 2018 at the earliest, but $50m will get you the penthouse, available through the developers.
Cyber security in the home, meanwhile, falls into the shockingly lax category, pretty much regardless of nationality, says Bond-Gunning. Combining basic guesswork with information easily harvested from social media is now behind 83 per cent of internet security attacks, he says. Once installed on a home device, cybercriminals will lie in wait for months, monitoring emails and collecting key contact information. When you are away they will email trustees and accountants from your account, aping your idiom and expressions to instruct fund transfers.
Super-rich customers are sitting ducks. For Bond-Gunning’s clients the typical loss is close to £1m. The bigger cost may be to your reputation: when the crooks have finished working their way through your address and phone book it is likely that a few of your business associates and friends will then start receiving attention, he says.
Not that cyber-masterminds are required: the defences used by many of the super-rich wouldn’t keep out a 12 year old on a laptop. One cocky London board member of accountants PwC was recently hacked by the firm’s security team. His home’s door and safe combinations were his wedding date; his location — a speaking engagement — was on his LinkedIn profile; a bit of surveillance revealed the timing of his wife’s daily school run and an overlapping visit by the dog walker. Armed with the wiring diagram from a recent planning application, disabling the CCTV was a breeze. The team was in and out before teatime.
Being ransomed in your own home could soon become a risk, meanwhile. The electronic magnets supporting sophisticated door locking systems in commercial buildings will soon start appearing in high-end homes, reckons Alex Newell of London agent Hanover Private Office. The appeal is that they can be remote-controlled, like heating and lighting systems. The danger is that they can also be hacked: the prospect of an unwelcome lock-in could be coming soon to a living room near you.
For some, security preoccupations remain more actual than virtual. Back in rural Ecuador word of the success of his client’s farming business is spreading and with it, the risk of attracting the attention of a more serious criminal who puts the farmer and his family at genuine risk. The current solution is to stuff a safe with $300,000; in the event of a serious stick-up the farmer will claim this is his entire fortune. For the time being, that should do the trick.


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