Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
December 2, 2020

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Contact tracing and COVID-19 director’s briefing

Heritage security

Securing heritage sites in a pandemic: Challenges and solutions

Hunter Seymour explores the security challenges museums, galleries and other heritage sites are facing as a result of the COVID pandemic and resulting lockdowns. With many institutions now understaffed and facing financial difficulties, Hunter also provides guidance on the actions managers can take to protect some of the most highly valued items in the world.

The pandemic has taken our cultural institutions to breaking point. News stories are only too familiar: “Raid gang’s £57m heist of jade artefacts” or “£500,000 rhino horn theft bid foiled at castle museum”. Together, these raids on museums would have netted more than the Hatton Garden bank vault raid.

Heritagesites-Security-20

(Courtesy of Perrotin) Photo by artist Sophie Calle, who recorded the empty picture frames that represent the 13 paintings stolen in the biggest art theft in U.S. history, when two men disguised as police officers stole approximately $500 million worth of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the early hours of March 18, 1990.


So grave is the crisis that, this autumn, Art Fund – the national charity for art – released new research to indicate the perilous financial position of UK museums, showing only a third of closed museums believe they will reopen in the coming months. Such an unprecedented situation of underfunding points, of course, to the consequential vulnerability of the heritage environment and the urgent need for risk management to review security processes under the constraints of reduced staffing levels and to revise your emergency planning.

In these challenging and troubling times, therefore, to enable museum professionals to reassess best safeguarding practices for their collections, the very latest specialist advice has been sought from three authoritative sources: Liaison with Law Enforcement, Video Surveillance Systems, and the Forensic Tagging of Exhibits.

“Expect the worst and think outside the box

95% of the world’s museums have been forced to temporarily close their doors to protect their visitors this year, posing immense problems for administrators who must continue to ensure the fire safety and security of their collections under quarantine measures.

Evidently, then, there must be clear, revised, up-to-date protocols to protect exhibits during lockdown; protocols that are likely to differ from routine conditions and characterised, for example, by rotating teams, 24/7 accessible security support and the establishment of a specific list of staff authorised to access your site. Ensure regular contact and a clear channel of communication between your security consultants and your administration, as well as with external service providers (if they are outsourced).

Foremost, post-COVID police liaison units encourage museum management to maintain close communication with police forces and to exchange information regularly with advisors. In short, you must be prepared to deal with and react to emergencies 24 hours a day, responding effectively to natural phenomenon (fire, flood, gales) or events such as electrical faults, theft, and intrusion.

As Interpol warns: “Now, more than ever, we need to reinforce security measures to protect our heritage from attacks and criminals’ greed.”

At grassroots level in the museum sector, there is no shortage of forum discussions on issues like enhanced surveillance around areas of cultural heritage. Forum participants often offer astute observations:

  • “In planning sessions, think the worst and outside the box. The follow-up is mega important too!”
  • “Once you’ve got an emergency plan, test it.”
  • “Ensure your local fire service is familiar with your site.”
  • “Your plan should be conditional on limited access, if not, you give free information for thieves.”

This last advice is echoed by ARCH (Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage) stressing that reports of crimes that detail the modus operandi are a gift to thieves. Be discreet! Discourage imitation. Make crime harder to commit, remove temptation and mark your cultural assets – security tagging of exhibits, triggered by associated alarms, may reduce the risk of theft.

No hiding place for intruders

Highly visible warning signs indicating such defensive measures as “anti-climb paint”, asset marking, or CCTV surveillance are deterrents to thieves and can avert unauthorised entry. Simple ruses can effectively discourage intruders. Where the building is moderately protected, internal lights triggered by timing devices can make it look occupied. Automatic number plate recognition may be installed at high value sites. On the outside, strategically planted thorny, spiky, dense shrubs or hedging can create an effective barrier to deter intruders – the prospect of leaving snagged clues or DNA behind for law-enforcement can defeat even the most determined.

Deterrents to arson include high quality energy-efficient dusk to dawn lighting, which is vandal resistant. Avoid high lighting levels, which may produce dark shadows that offer concealment, while roofs and their approaches should be assessed for means to inhibit casual access and to avoid hiding places for intruders.

Increase community engagement by mobilising supporters of your heritage site: encourage Neighbourhood Watch-style groups; set up a Heritage Watch group. Extend your reach!

CCTV core measures

The latest guidance for the heritage sector from specialist CCTV in Focus Ltd aims to prompt risk management to think differently when planning and installing CCTV systems. Key questions to ask are: “What do I need to see?” and “Why do I need to see it?” Essentially, to mitigate risk, “your CCTV needs to be proportionate, transparent and effective.” Once these questions have been answered an Operational Requirement should be drawn up for every camera to be installed before a CCTV installer is called in to quote for a system.

These three core measures are further emphasised:

  • Transparent: the presence of CCTV needs to be seen and clearly signposted.
  • Proportionate: determine the risk, understand its causes, and examine all appropriate responses.
  • Effective: Images produced must be fit for purpose.

Eliminating subjectivity

Without objective standards, commissioning trials cannot be effectively controlled and monitored, potentially leading to a CCTV security system unfit for purpose.

The CCTV Code of Practice states that any CCTV images must be adequate for the purpose for which you are collecting them. The Home Office states it is essential that you choose camera equipment and locations that achieve the purpose for which you are using CCTV. In addition, an installation where the installer tests his own work on a subjective basis is clearly bad practice and third party testing should be appointed.

Any approach in planning your CCTV installation must, therefore, be “eliminatory” to root out false specifications for “Operational Requirements”, of which there are four key stages towards commissioning:

  • Your Statement of Overall Security Need
  • Your Defined Requirement for CCTV
  • Your Detailed CCTV System Specification
  • Assessment of Installed CCTV System Performance

The ultimate intention of this eliminatory process is to establish a Benchmark for you to commission against, and to determine a Benchmark for the Future. The installer selected must be made aware that “objective” testing will be undertaken using a suitable objective test target. “Not subjective” testing is to ensure that the operational requirement for each camera installed is fully achieved. These test results can be used for the ongoing management of the system over the lifetime of the system.

Defining your specification for the recorded image

As part of your “Operational Requirements” you’ll need to define the recorded image requirement; these fall in to six categories: Monitor & ControlDetect; Observe; RecogniseIdentify; and Inspect.

In a typical museum setting your objective is most likely to Recognise and Identify persons. In many museums the harsh truth is that the CCTV system is not being monitored around-the-clock by full time personnel. This circumstance is now even more prevalent due to COVID-related understaffing. It follows, then, the images produced are more often used for forensic purposes after an incident has occurred. The recorded image quality is, therefore, paramount if the images are to be fit for purpose.

Your “Operational Requirements” should require each camera to achieve fit-for-purpose-images of a defined resolution. Here, therefore, are just a few pointers as to what you should be specifying before any camera system is installed:

  • Position of camera: “What do you want to see and why do you want to see it?”
  • Lighting during business hours and after hours?
  • Capture frame rates being recorded?
  • Number of pixels on the target area?
  • Are cameras focused correctly?
  • Camera security. “Can the camera be interfered with? Can camera views overlook each other?”

Who guards the guardians? If another camera overlooks the first camera anyone interfering with it will be picked up on the second camera. You may have a camera designated to look at a display case and another camera giving a general view of the room ensuring this camera has within its view the camera watching the display case.

Objective versus Subjective: a CCTV case history

Example: Exhibits were displayed on a table with cameras covering 360 degrees, the risk auditor was told. And the view from the monitor did, indeed, show four views of the table and its exhibits.

OR DID IT?

No operational requirement had been drawn up. The only testing carried out after installation was subjective and, critically, no “control image” was taken. Over time, the security staff familiar with the exhibits room looked at the images and considered all was well. By simply testing the image from each camera objectively it was found that one camera was not covering a portion of the exhibits.

BUT… familiarity with the view had led the staff to be blinded to the shortcomings of one camera view. With no control image to refer to, all views were considered faithful images.

HOWEVER… every week the cleaners dusted the room and, at some point, a camera had been nudged by a millimeter – not enough to be obvious but enough to compromise the purpose of the camera.

Similarly, there are many instances of exhibits being moved to improve visitor experience, leaving the security camera looking at the floor! Objective testing will highlight shortcomings in any installation. Do not just look at a live monitor; you must look at recorded images, too.

In these cautionary cases, one or two exhibits could have been removed by theft and no CCTV evidence could have been produced. Camera interference is not always unintentional; a security audit routine is essential and can be made simple and painless with a little forward planning. A properly drafted Operational Requirement, with objective testing after installation, with a control image taken for future performance monitoring will considerably reduce the risk of being caught out.

Auditing of camera images is of critical importance, but experience shows it is seldom undertaken. Very often testing is only initiated when an incident occurs and that may be just too late! Museums are living buildings; only by regular testing will you discover if your system performs as it should. 

Forensic marking of exhibits

As museums across the world prepare to welcome visitors back after closures caused by the pandemic, SelectaDNA, the developer of advanced forensic marking solutions, warns: “It certainly won’t be business as usual.”

Following a spate of metal thefts in churches, a suspect was arrested and charged with theft from a church in south-east London, after “SelectaDNA” technology was used to successfully trace the metal and place him at the scene of the crime.


New health and safety measures such as ticketed entry times, no interactive displays and the banning of shared audio guides are among guidelines to help keep staff and visitors safe.

However, there is another layer of security that museums can easily introduce to help protect their important collections of art, antiques and artefacts as visitors return in the coming months.

SelectaDNA is a forensic property marking solution containing a unique DNA code that can be registered to a specific museum or heritage site. It can be easily applied to exhibits as it is almost invisible on application and is compatible with virtually all types of materials and surfaces. In the event that a marked exhibit is stolen and recovered by police, it could be quickly traced back to the museum via the DNA code.

A Secure Asset Register, conforming to the highest global security and quality standards ensures clients’ asset records are kept safe at all times.

Linking criminals to crime scenes

DNA asset marking offers new and innovative ways to disrupt criminal activities. Police from around the world have access to the database, allowing 24/7/365 searches when property is recovered or perpetrators apprehended.

SelectaDNA explains its technology has been used to mark priceless exhibits at several museum and heritage sites following its success in reducing theft in residential property-marking schemes both in the UK and internationally. It has been used to help catalogue items at the Natural History Museum in London and has been applied to the prestigious collection of cars at the world-famous National Motor Museum at Beaulieu and also at the Goodwood Motor Museum.

Marking irreplaceable assets

Historic England has also used SelectaDNA to forensically protect ancient marine wreck sites from theft and damage; while secret bunker sites at Portadown in Northern Ireland and Skelmorlie in Scotland – which were originally used at the height of the Cold War and are now visitor attractions with on-site museums – have marked all their irreplaceable monitoring equipment for posterity.

A Bronze-age village in County Durham has had priceless artefacts DNA-protected; and the Church of England has protected altarware dating back to medieval times with it.

According to SelectaDNA, forensic marking reduces burglaries by over 80%.

Further reading

Further reading and advice on crime prevention is available from the following sources…

Alongside sources from the likes of the Home Office, Historic England, Interpol and ARCH (Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage), thank you to the valued contributions to this article from SelectaDNA and CCTV In Focus.

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