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Why expensive security alarms could actually be putting your valuables at risk

Jun Cen

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In September 30, 2016, after an elaborate police operation, two van Gogh paintings were recovered from the home of a Neapolitan Mafia boss . They had been stolen nearly 14 years earlier from the world-famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on December 7, 2002 . The thieves weren’t too subtle about their approach: they smashed a window, probably with a sledgehammer wrapped in cloth . The expensive alarm system didn’t go off . The guards heard the commotion, but the thieves were too quick for them . They knew exactly which two paintings they wanted, so they walked straight up to them, ripped them off the walls and exited through the broken window. This case is just one of many, and not exclusively in the world of art crime, where expensive security is foiled through the simplest of methods . Most of the time, thieves can render useless a multi-million-pound defence system simply by acting quickly. To boards of directors and insurance companies, expensive, state-of-the-art security2 sounds like it should be the most effective and safest option .

But such an approach raises two problems . First, there always seem to be smart people who enjoy a challenge . When I worked at a major art museum, the computer technician was driven mad by some non-malevolent hacker3 who kept breaking into the system . The hacker wouldn’t do much – turn off a light here, send an email there4 – just enough to show that the system had been breached, and would require a complete overhaul of security protocols. Second, most high-tech security5 – whether for computer systems, banks, homes or museums – is alarm-based . When a perimeter is breached, an alarm – silent or sounding – is meant to notify authorities . This sounds fine in principle, but for the fact that technical devices sometimes don’t work properly, and someone must respond in a timely and effective fashion for the alarm to have served any purpose. In 2008, two museum incidents highlighted the dangers mentioned above . First, at the blockbuster British Museum exhibit of the Chinese terracotta warriors, an activist slipped surgical masks, scrawled with political slogans, over the faces of some of the figures .

Each statue had been expensively protected by a software that drew an invisible barrier around each warrior – if this barrier were breached, an alarm would sound . At least, that was the idea . Not only did the alarm not go off, but tourists had to look for a guard to tell them what was happening . Second, that same year, a bunch of drunken vandals smashed open the employee entrance to the Mus e d’Orsay in Paris . The alarms went off, but the intruders were able to rush in, punch a hole through a Monet and sprint out before guards could reach them. Human response is of critical importance to high-tech security, both in terms of the natural human prankster impulse and the practical response of guards or police to an alarm sounding. To counteract this over-reliance on technology, some ingenious security specialists have come up with low-tech, analogue defensive measures to compliment the laser barriers and heat-sensor cameras . Dennis Ahern, director of security UK at Christie’s auction house and previously head of security for the Tate museums, taught a course on museum security at the ARCA postgraduate programme in art crime and cultural heritage protection . He likes to combine low- and high-tech devices in the same gallery .

The analogue methods, some as mundane as affixing a sculpture to its plinth with high-tensile steel fishing line, offer an element of surprise . Hostile surveillance – casing a joint, as criminals are wont to do when considering a location for a crime – might spot CCTV cameras and motion detectors, but the last thing a thief expects is a bit of fishing line.


Bolting statues to plinths, or frames to walls, is done less than you might think (there is some concern about speed of removal of objects in the event of a fire), but lashing a valuable that you don’t want going anywhere to an immobile surface is a tried-and-true safety mechanism, at least delaying potential thieves, if not stopping them altogether . Average police response time to a 999 call in cities is ten to 15 minutes, so delaying a thief is crucial . Add a surprise element to your alarm system, and that fishing line might buy police an extra minute or two to stop the bad guys . They also offer a failsafe if technology fails. Hanging side-by-side in London’s National Gallery are Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) and Margaret, the Artist’s Wife, a pair of pendant portraits by Jan van Eyck . There they rest, doubtless secured by various alarms and tracking devices (museums don’t like to go public with the details of their security measures) . For centuries, these works were displayed together at the painter’s guild hall in Bruges . But back in the 18th century, Portrait of a Man was stolen .

To make sure its neighbour didn’t go anywhere, a heavy iron chain was affixed to it . Now that the two portraits are reunited in the National Gallery, perhaps it would be fitting (and safer) to have them both chained to the wall ? In addition to all that high-tech security, of course.


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Bad drones: the race to develop effective counter-drone security is on

Drones can be used by criminals to carry drugs or terrorists to drop bombs

Rune Fisker

Read more from The WIRED World 2017


In 2016, we learned of near misses with passenger jets, drugs being dropped into prisons2 and objects appearing in the air above sporting events – all involving small drones3 . In 2017, the battle will begin in earnest, as growing numbers of counter-drone systems are deployed – and the drones evolve in response. DJI4‘s Phantom series has made the Shenzhen-based organisation the first billion-dollar commercial drone company; its products can shoot movie-quality aerial footage at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter, and are so easy to use that a novice can fly one out of the box . The Phantom 4 flies at up to 70kph and is designed to avoid obstacles automatically. Easy availability of drones creates three types of danger: careless users may fly them into flight paths or crash them in crowded places; criminals can use them to smuggle contraband into prisons and invade private property; and terrorists can use them as bombs. US think tank the MITRE Corporation has launched Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS), a competition for drone defence, seeking inexpensive “non-kinetic” solutions, that don’t involve shooting them down . Its thinking is that the risk of knocking a drone out of the sky – especially over a city – is too high, especially if it is carrying explosives . The potential for collateral damage by guns and missiles fired at drones is also considerable. One of the contenders is the SkyWall 100, made by UK-based OpenWorks Engineering .

It uses a bazooka-like launcher that fires a projectile with a net that envelopes the drone and parachutes it to the ground safely. Some MITRE contenders rely on jamming . Radio Hill Technologies’ ray-gun-like Dronebuster, for instance, jams the radio communication between the drone and its operator . When this happens, most drones are programmed to land or return to base . Other counter-drone systems are more subtle: MESMER, a device developed by US company Department 13, can hack into the drone’s software and take over control. There are no standards for such systems, and customers only have manufacturers’ claims to go by . The Rio Olympics5 was supposedly protected by jammers, but drones appeared over several events, suggesting the measures didn’t work as planned . The MITRE C-UAS competition should help identify which products work best; the hope of the organisers is that good ideas will attract funding. The number of reported near misses between UAVs and aircraft quadrupled from 2015 to 2016, so the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is taking steps to keep rogue craft away from airports .

The FAA awarded a contract to British company Blighter Surveillance Systems and partners for its electronic Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS) . This is a bigger, more expensive setup than those in the MITRE competition, and can detect and track drones at long range before blocking them with radio-frequency jamming . FAA trials will continue in 2017. The military also need drone defences . Photos on social media6 show consumer drones used as scouts by Daesh in Syria . The Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency (Jida), originally set up to deal with the threat of improvised explosive devices (IED), has asked US Congress for $20 million ( 15m) to counter drones in Iraq.

“Drones have delivered small, precision IEDs in Iraq,” says Jida spokesman David Small . The number of attacks to date has been low, but their ability to bypass security7 barriers makes them disproportionately dangerous . A car bomb outside a compound is not as dangerous as a grenade dropped on your tent from a drone – and terrorist8 group Hezbollah has released videos of quadcopter drones adapted as grenade-bombers. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, chief operating officer of SecureBio and a veteran of both Gulf wars, reported seeing a Daesh drone spying on Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Syria . He noted how difficult it was to shoot down the small, flying targets, even in daylight . Hardware such as portable Stinger missiles have trouble locking on to battery-powered drones because of their lack of a heat signature .

Such missiles are also pricey. “Would you spend $100,000 to take down a $1,000 device?” he asks. Small says the US military is likely to upgrade its existing Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) system . This is a turret with a radar-guided, computer-controlled Gatling gun, resembling a Dalek, which shoots down incoming rockets and mortar bombs . Drones are traditionally a challenge for C-RAM because they fly low, meaning their image is set against a cluttered background and can be mistaken for birds . But upgrades could turn C-RAM into an effective anti-drone weapon. C-RAM is mounted on a 31-tonne trailer and is only useful for fixed sites . Convoys and troops on patrol might use jammers – some are reportedly already being used in Iraq – but whereas these may be effective now, they are unlikely to work for long . The US Air Force has warned that software is already available for drones to find and strike a target without external control . These are immune to jamming, because there is no communications link to jam, so a kinetic solution – a bullet or missile – may be needed.

This threat might lead to a new generation of low-cost mini-missiles, but the ultimate answer may lie in the drones themselves . Darpa, the Pentagon’s scientific research body, is soliciting ideas for a mobile system to protect against drones . Its solicitation is illustrated with a picture of a convoy defending itself against a swarm of attackers by launching its own squadron of defensive drones .

These could be cheap, disposable devices, armed with net launchers in a sensitive area, or explosive warheads in a battle zone. Counter-drone warfare will be a high-stakes game in 2017 . As manufacturers vie to produce ever more capable – and cheaper – UAVs, their appeal to criminals and terrorists will continue to grow, and the need for counter-drone security will become ever more intense.


David Hambling is author of Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones will Conquer the World (Archangel Ink)

The WIRED World in 2017 is WIRED’s fifth annual trends briefing, predicting what’s coming next in the worlds of technology, science and design


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Your next home security system could deploy patrol drones

Alarm has developed a machine learning algorithm, called the Insights Engine, that continually monitors sensors placed around your property to learn how things are normally run and to quickly identify unexpected events — say, a break-in or a water leak — when they occur . If the system does spot something out of the ordinary, it will deploy a swarm of autonomous UAVs built on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Flight drone1 platform to investigate . These little fliers will swarm over the event site and provide live video feeds to your phone . You can also opt in to share that video data with either’s central monitoring facility or directly with emergency responders . Finally, then, we can stop relying on Lassie to alert us every dang time Timmy falls down a well.

Click here2 to catch up on the latest news from CES 2017.


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