Gone in 60 Seconds

By Will Craig, CTS-D CDT, Elert & Associates

Projector theft from classrooms is a sensitive subject with campus instructional technology professionals. Everybody knows it’s a problem, but nobody wants to talk much about it. There are understandable reasons for this – talking about security precautions can make them less effective, detailing steps taken by successful thieves tells others how to do it, and it’s downright embarrassing to answer administration and student questions about “losing” tens of thousands of dollars of equipment.

Unfortunately, even campuses that have taken active security precautions may find that their efforts come up short – not because of bad planning or failure to purchase precautionary hardware, but because the hardware itself is not securely installed, attached, mounted, or wired.

When I visit clients’ classrooms and see the security precautions they have taken, one of the first things I consider (and share with them) is “how quickly could someone take this projector?” Alarmingly, in most cases, even with active security measures in place, the answer is less than 20 seconds.

Common problems/oversights:

  1. Projector mount brackets not assembled with security hardware: Special nuts/bolts/screws are available for nearly all projector mount brackets, and often the brackets are shipped with optional secure hardware. Do these get used by the installers in the field? Typically not. Apparently installers feel that it’s too much work to change the bit on their electric drill, and they use the Philips head screws and bolts. Or, they’d rather use the thumbscrews than the secure ones so that they can more easily tweak the aim of the projector once it’s up. In any case, even where you buy a mount with the specific intent of using the security hardware, it always pays to get up on a ladder and check and see whether it was installed with the secure hardware.
  2. Audio alarms defective: Experience has shown that up to 5% of 3 rd-party audio alarms are defective out-of-box. If your installers have put these in without testing them (and believe me, nobody wants to test an alarm that screams at them at 120 dB from an arms-length away), and you have 100 projectors, then several of them are probably vulnerable. Make sure that each alarm is tested before you consider the room is secure.
  3. Sensor coils not tied off properly: Whether used with an audio alarm on the projector, on the wall of the room, or tied into the building security system, a sensor coil/wire needs to be tied to something that isn’t going to move. Installers often like to tie sensor coils around the projector mount pipe, or to the mounting bracket itself. From the ground, this looks secure. On a ladder (or a desk), you can see that all a thief needs to do is twist the bracket off the threaded pipe, and everything comes along with it – projector, alarm, sensor coil, and projector mount bracket – with no alarm sounding. It would take less than 20 seconds and requires no tools.

Why are these seemingly obvious precautions so often overlooked? Best case assumption, it’s an example of installers not following the intent of the designer, whether it’s written into a specification or part of verbal instruction. Maybe it saved them five minutes not to use the security hardware, or not to tie the sensor coil off to structure above the ceiling grid.

When a large number of projectors were stolen from my alma mater, I contacted the vendor who had provided and installed them to offer advice on how to protect the other projectors on the campus. I had not worked for the college, but the vendor was working for several of my clients and was bidding on several of my projects. Instead of even acting appreciative for the input, their reaction was, “If we take all of these security precautions you recommend for the projectors, then the manufacturer that we push won’t honor the advanced replacement warranty. Besides, if the projectors get stolen, we just sell them new ones – their insurance should cover it.”

It’s hard not to get cynical about motivations when you hear that kind of response.

Sometimes it’s a quality control issue – the person responsible for the system walks into the room, looks up at the projector, sees the security devices, and assumes that everything is mounted, wired, and secured properly. Every installed projector should be checked up-close, to make sure that it has been installed safely and securely.

A student at a major university recently went to the facilities office, asked to borrow a bolt cutters, received one without being asked any questions or showing ID, and proceeded to walk down the hall to an auditorium control room where they cut the cable lock securing a projector and removed the projector. In this instance, they were working for the classroom technologies group, but it was alarming how easily they were able to use university resources to get access to secured technology. Could this happen at your institution?

Will Craig CTS-D is a consultant with Elert & Associates, an independent technology consulting firm serving higher education clients across the United States.

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