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"Dude, Where's My Projector?"

Steps to take to prevent A/V equipment theft
University Business, May 2009

Twenty years ago, projectors had three "guns," weighed between 80-120 pounds, were the size of a coffee table, and took a crew of technicians a couple of days to install and converge. They were dim, expensive, and finicky machines, but the one advantage they had over today's bright, ultra-portable, and inexpensive projectors was that you could come into the classroom or lecture theater and pretty much count on still finding them, on the ceiling, where they were yesterday. Theft wasn't an issue.

Today’s projectors are a different story. They disappear from institutional environments every single day. Not just schools, houses of worship, hospitals, and performance venues are all victims of theft. Googling the words "projector stolen" will yield reports from local newspapers and law enforcement offices of daily losses across the country. Hard statistics remain frustratingly elusive, but it's clear that facilities from K-12 through post secondary education are challenged with hanging onto their A/V assets. The fact that projectors have become such a common target shouldn't surprise anyone. Game console jockeys will tell you that "Call of Duty" or "Grand Theft Auto" are way more fun to play at 120-inch diagonal than they are at 32 inches. Portable and easily disposed of on the street or through Craigslist, stolen projectors end up attached to game consoles or in home theaters or even back in other institutional environments.

So what to do about this?

Many facilities will have a formal “security master plan” and people or departments responsible for that plan. Part of their responsibility will be able to maintain a list of both assets and threats. Your first step is to make sure that projectors are counted as an asset. You would think that would be a given, but it’s not. A record of your assets can be a simple as a spreadsheet or as sophisticated as a web-based asset management system, and should at minimum contain make, model, serial number, and date of acquisition for each projector.

In the words of Sun Tszu, the next step is to “know your enemy,” to understand what the threats are, and where they’re coming from. This may require consulting with other stakeholders, such as facilities managers, security departments, and peers. What are other areas within a facility experiencing? What about peers at other facilities? Is there historical data to draw from? Can trends be identified?

Finally the goal is to have comprehensive strategies in place to manage these threats. Both type and degree of threat must be addressed. Countermeasures should be reviewed regularly. Is what we’re doing still appropriate and adequate?

Students of the Second World War will remember that the Maginot Line was an infamous line of perimeter defenses that the French built along their borders with Germany and Italy. The French had such complete faith in the invulnerability of the Maginot Line that they had no “plan B,” and, as history records, all the Germans had to do was breach the line at one point to be able to overrun the country. According to Wikipedia, the Maginot Line is generally considered one of the great failures of military history. The term "Maginot Line" is now often used as a metaphor for something that is confidently relied upon, but in the end proves ineffective.

At the K-12 level, perimeter security would typically consist of locked doors and shuttered windows, and at higher levels might also include alarm systems, security cameras, card access, security guards and more. While perimeter security is important, it risks becoming a “Maginot Line” if relied upon exclusively. If your perimeter has been breached, what other countermeasures do you have? Projectors and other A/V equipment need to have their own protection.

A professional threat management/risk abatement strategy employs layers of security - an approach that is often referred to as the "onion" methodology. Up to a point of diminishing returns, the more layers, the better. It’s important to keep in mind that, like Shangri-la, a theft-proof environment is an impossible ideal. Security professionals are fond of saying that “locks keep honest people honest.” You cannot make your equipment or your environment theft-proof. However, diminishing returns apply to a thief as well. By combining your countermeasures in well-designed layers, you can succeed in making your assets unattractive, and not worth the trouble or risk.

Assuming you have your perimeter security house in order, what are some of the layers you can add at the projector level to reduce the incidence of theft?

In order of effectiveness:

Psychological countermeasures - the simplest way to define these is to explain what they are not. Psychological countermeasures do not physically prevent theft, but rather rely on good old-fashioned fear of getting caught. They may not deter a sufficiently desperate thief, or one with a mental state altered by drugs, alcohol or mental illness.

Solutions include:

Network monitoring: the "E.T. phone home" approach, whereby LAN-enabled projectors are pinged regularly to confirm that they're still there. Monitoring software can be configured so that alerts can be sent via email or page if a projector fails to report back. To be effective as a countermeasure it is essential that facilities utilizing network monitoring actually advertise in the classroom that they're doing so. A sign or sticker stating "This projector is monitored against unauthorized removal" would be a really good idea.

Product identification: this would include any scheme for permanently marking the projector either as a non-consumer version or as an asset of a specific facility, such as by engraving, stenciling, or tamper-proof labeling. At least one manufacturer offered their projectors-such as driving range golf balls-in a bright orange color for the school market.

Alarms: attaching alarms to projectors is a loss prevention strategy borrowed from the retail world. Available in either motion sensing or circuit interrupt flavors, alarms are most often used to retrofit existing unsecure mounts. Depending on the type, they will entail either additional wiring or ongoing maintenance in the form of battery replacement.

Anti-theft cables: Vinyl-coated, braided steel security cables of the type long available for laptop computers are also available for projectors. They attach to the projector either via small metal tabs inserted into corresponding slots in the projector housing, or via adhesive backed metal pads applied to the projector. The cable must also loop around or through a secure anchoring point - preferably a structural member or hole drilled through the drop pipe. Security cables are relatively easy to cut, so you might be inclined to dismiss their value as more psychological than physical, but they can be effective at reducing crimes of opportunity. Your prospective thief would need to be tooled-up with at least a pair of side cutters.

Security fasteners: The fasteners used to assemble a mount and attach it to the projector can be replaced with security versions, the most commonly used of which is the Security TORX fastener. The caveat here is that the corresponding bits and drivers for the Security TORX fastener have also become relatively common, somewhat diminishing their security value. Limited distribution or proprietary fasteners are preferable. If you can’t find it at your local hardware or electronics store, you are probably on the right track.

Password protection: Many of the projectors aimed at the ed market are available with a password protection feature. While this won't physically prevent the removal of a projector, not knowing the password does render the projector inoperative. Password integrity can be difficult to maintain in an environment with multiple users, and like network monitoring, password protection only has value as a countermeasure if you advertise it.

Anti-theft mounts: Here's an idea: instead of retrofitting a lightweight consumer-grade mount with a hodgepodge of anti-theft add-ons, how about using a purpose-built anti-theft mount?

These are available in three flavors:

- The "Pizza Box" design adds a shallow steel box to the top of the mount, concealing the anchoring points between the mount and the projector. Some models provide additional internal space for the mounting of other electronics, such as tuners, scalers, switchers, etc. These mounts provide good lightweight security for low to medium risk environments.

- The "Lobster Trap" is a one-size-fits-all (or couple of sizes fit all) perforated steel box that completely encloses the projector. These mounts offer excellent security but are best suited for applications that require impact protection for the projector, as might be required for installations in gymnasiums and similar environments. Outside of this application, "Lobster Trap"-style mounts can be awkward to install, unattractive, and can add to the thermal load and service complexity of your projector. If you're still using IR remotes to control your projectors, you’ll have problems with this design. Many models also need to be used in conjunction with a regular mount, adding cost.

- The "Adjustable Cage" provides the best combination of flexibility and security. This design features a relatively universal fit, and can be easily reconfigured to fit different projector models. Comprised of movable interlocking members, the "Adjustable Cage" shouldn't impede airflow, IR or access to ports or onboard controls.

Here are a few final things to keep in mind:

- Combine robust perimeter security with one or more asset-specific countermeasures.

- Securing the projector at the mount is only one step. What's to prevent someone from unscrewing the mount from the pipe, or the pipe from the ceiling flange, or from unbolting the flange and taking the projector, pipe and all? You'll need to address each of these points of vulnerability as well.

- The soft cost to replace a projector often runs three to five times the hard cost.

Low incidence of theft is not evidence of low risk, but rather of luck. Don’t let luck be the determinant in your security planning.

Dan Zimmer is director of sales and marketing for Hard Steal Security Corp.

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