Emerging Issues in Security, Security Hardware and Technology

Small and Cheap ‘Raspberry Pi’ Microcomputer Can Play Many Security Roles

As security technology gets smaller, faster, more accessible, and more powerful, it can also get more expensive. Budget-conscious security professionals must balance what needs to be protected with what they can afford, all with a need to be practical. We don’t put paperclips in a wall safe, but we can often outthink ourselves, believing that bigger is better or more expensive means more value.

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A new entry into the portable computer market has come up with a computer smaller than a tablet, with the ability to run a security camera, get connected to a DVR, or act as a small server. Known as the “Raspberry Pi Zero,” the device can start out as a $5 circuit board, which can be upgraded for less than $100 with a case, an SD card, a power supply, a miniature keyboard, and additional USB ports for video and audio jacks. For about $35, users can buy an 8-megapixel camera (about the same quality as a cellphone) and a cable, turning the device into a cost-effective and tiny security camera station. The device plugs into most TV sets, which means users don’t have to buy an additional computer monitor. The chip size and speed is about the equivalent of what is used in a cellphone, making a cooling fan system unnecessary. The designers boast that “you can put the Raspberry Pi Zero into an Altoids mint tin with room to spare.”

The most sophisticated of the Raspberry Pi models is known as the 3B, which sells for about $35. Its features include:

  • Broadcom BCM2837 chipset running at 1.2 GHz
  • 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53
  • 802.11 b/g/n Wireless LAN
  • Bluetooth 4.1 (Classic and Low Energy)
  • Dual core Videocore IV® Multimedia coprocessor
  • 1 GB LPDDR2 memory
  • Supports all the latest ARM GNU/Linux distributions and Windows 10 IoT
  • MicroUSB connector for 2.5 A power supply
  • 1 x 10/100 Ethernet port
  • 1 x HDMI video/audio connector
  • 1 x RCA video/audio connector
  • 4 x USB 2.0 ports
  • 40 GPIO pins
  • Chip antenna
  • DSI display connector
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Dimensions: 85x56x17 mm

The Raspberry Pi Operating System is known as “Raspbian” and is an open-source platform that users can download. To operate the controls to the chips and circuit boards that make up these mini-computers, users can install the “Debian” desktop operating system on either Windows or Mac desktops. The company website offers local meetup possibilities for like-minded users called “Raspberry Jams.”

The founding company is located in the United Kingdom and describes itself this way:

“The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a U.K.-based charity that works to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world, so they are capable of understanding and shaping our increasingly digital world, able to solve the problems that matter to them, and equipped for the jobs of the future. We provide low-cost, high-performance computers that people use to learn, solve problems and have fun. We provide outreach and education to help more people access computing and digital making. We develop free resources to help people learn about computing and how to make things with computers, and train educators who can guide other people to learn.”

One library in western Maryland has a Raspberry Pi connected to a flat-screen TV, along with a camera, installed in the front lobby, so staff can see patrons coming through the door. These new mini-systems make it possible for nearly anyone, worldwide, to get access to a working computer with related accessories for under $100. Security professionals may want to take a look at the Raspberry Pi devices as a way to customize security installations where space (or budget dollars) are limited.