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Banking on megapixel technology

It used to be so apparently entertaining and risk-free to rob one of the branches of the Westminster Savings Credit Union (WSCU) that one young thief did it two days in a row.


May 25, 2010
By Kathleen Sibley

The first day was when the organization was installing new security video cameras.

On the second day, says Jennifer Scott, manager, risk management, WSCU,
the thief was much better dressed.  “He had gone shopping with the
money we ”˜gave’ him,” she says.

Today, the robber is doing three years in jail, thanks in part to the
credit union’s recent installation of 120 Avigilon megapixel and about
80 analogue cameras in the cash areas and vaults of the company’s 13
locations throughout B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

The credit union has, in about eight months, transformed its security
system from the Dark Ages to the Space Age, figuratively speaking.

Its megapixel camera installation, which runs on Avigilon’s proprietary
software, replaces an antiquated system of mostly analogue cameras and
VHS tapes (although it had digital cameras at three locations) that
made identifying thieves, con artists and vandals virtually impossible.

“I would get a call that there had been a robbery, a fraudulent cheque
presented at the counter or a break-in, and the VHS tape would be sent
to me in an overnight bag,” explains Scott. “So if it happened on a
Saturday in the branch, I wouldn’t get it until Monday.”


Once she got the tape, she would have to use a special player that only she had on her computer to review it.

“I would get to the point where I would be in the right zone and start
viewing it, and then, if I wanted to capture it, it would be printed
onto Polaroid-like little cards,” she says. “They came out in black and
white, (and) the images were so grainy it was impossible to identify
anybody by them.”

As well, the process of fast-forwarding and rewinding the VHS tape
actually degraded the evidence. On top of that, she adds, tapes could
be re-used up to four times, so someone had to monitor how often each
was used.

Expanding the scope
Initially, before the organization decided to install megapixel
cameras, the plan was to just replace the analogue system with digital
equipment.

WSCU put out an RFP; eight vendors responded and demonstrated their
products. That’s where Scott met Unified Systems Inc. (USI), the
Vancouver-based integrator that designed and implemented the Avigilon
system.

Although the megapixel solution was not the least expensive, it was the
most impressive, she says, and it met her requirement for an
easy-to-use system that offered high-quality images.


None of the other vendors offered megapixel cameras, and the images and
the capabilities megapixel cameras provide are superior, she adds.

She was also impressed by the USI team’s professionalism, she says.

For the demo, USI used 10 megapixel cameras at an installation in
another part of the city. “They went in from the top of a building and
zoomed in on people on the street to the point where you could see what
they were carrying in their hands — what they bought when they were
walking out of the store. It was really CSI-like,” Scott says.

In one image, the cameras zoomed into a dark garage across the street
to the point where she could read the licence plates and even make out
the drivers, despite the shadows.

That capability serves the credit union well, although it didn’t buy 10
MP cameras; instead, it installed 1,2 and 3 MP cameras in different
areas of the branches, depending on requirements, all of them networked
to Scott’s workstation. Some branches have glass walls, so if someone
robbed the bank and left his getaway car parked out in front, it would
be a cinch to capture the licence plate with the 3 MP cameras.

Analogue cameras are also mounted at all ATMs and at the approaches to drive-through ATMs.
Bank robbers don’t always know where all the cameras are mounted. They
typically know there are cameras at the ATMs, but often look into the
branch to check out the level of activity before they don hats, hoodies
and shades to obscure their facial features.


“We’ve had cases where we were able to zoom in while they were looking
in from the outside and get a reasonable image of before they hat and
hoodie up,” says Scott.

Shawn Madsen, owner, Unified Systems Inc., says WSCU, unlike most
organizations, skipped what he calls transition security technology,
which today would be considered consumer-quality.

“They missed all that and went to lossless compression,” he says.

USI, he says, was so confident in the capabilities of the system it
was integrating that his team installed a pilot project on a pro bono
basis at the credit union’s Austin branch. In addition to licensed electricians, USI counts among its staff a dedicated IT department.

“We offered a pilot install to show off our skills and the quality of
the project,” he says. “Once we put the system in, it started paying
for itself.”

Scott explains that during the pilot, a young man entered the Austin
branch to cash a legitimate cheque for $4,000. When the teller went to
retrieve the cash from the recycler — the cash-dispensing machine banks
use — he picked up the cheque and put it under his arm. Crystal clear
video of the transaction shows the cash service rep counting the cash
when she returns.

“Then he takes the cash and he’s still got his cheque. He leaves with
the cheque and the cash, and at the end of the day she was $4,000 out,
of course.”


Upon the bank’s request, the customer returned the cheque. It then
revoked his ATM privileges, sparking his mother’s ire — until she was
asked if she wanted to see the video.

“She apologized,” says Scott. “It just takes all that off the table.”

A similar situation occurred at another branch.

“That’s not what the cameras were intended for — it’s just an ancillary benefit,” she notes.

In another robbery, the perpetrator wore a scarf wrapped around his
head and a ball cap. He also wore gloves to ensure he didn’t leave
fingerprints behind. The police were able to identify the thief’s shoes
by using a combination of lifted shoe treads and zoomed-in video of the
man’s running shoes — something that would never have been possible
with WSCU’s old technology.

Big Brother or useful tool?
But as much as the megapixel system plays a part in identifying
criminals, it also helps to identify and resolve human error.
Sometimes, for example, on the rare occasion a cash services
representative may forget to post a transaction to a customer’s
account. By replaying the day’s video, they can review the day’s
transactions by time. In one situation, there was a discrepancy between
the treasury, an ATM and the recycler at one branch. Scott, while
conference-calling with the accounting department, was able to replay
the video and watch as the cash was being taken out of the treasury.

“The technology is good enough that I could see how many bundles of
100s, 20s and 10s there were,” she says. “I could see the U.S. cash and
then I could trace them when they left the vault; I could see how many
bundles went into this ATM and how many bundles went into the other,
and from that I determined what the bookkeeping entry error was.”


Although some credit union employees had originally been uneasy about
being constantly watched, “very quickly they started to appreciate it
as a tool for them,” she says.

According to Dave Tynan, vice-president of global sales and marketing
for Avigilon, the company’s product provides a high-definition video
surveillance platform that uses HD stream management to power and
manage the millions of pixels that HD and megapixel cameras collect.
That capability, he says, allows the user to accommodate their current
system, including analogue cameras, and migrate to digital as their
budget allows. It’s built on an open architecture to allow for the
integration of third-party cameras, compressions, access control and
other security devices and systems.

“This combination maximizes the variable compression technology that
allows for efficient transmission, storage, export and playback of
forensic detail never before available from a commercialized network
video management platform,” he says.

Of course, storing the data generated by megapixel cameras is a bit more complicated and expensive than storing VHS tapes.

That’s not as much of an issue with Avigilon, however, says Tynan. The
vendor includes a data aging feature, which allows the user to
configure three separate storage silos with varying numbers of frames
or images of video for varying periods, as standard in its products.

While high-tech security solutions may not deter robberies entirely  —
WSCU experienced about seven of them over the last year-and-a-half — it
does go a long way towards ensuring the perpetrators are caught, as
well as enhancing the safety and security of members and staff.

Brian Kellett, sales rep and system integrator at USI, predicts the
frequency of such activity will decrease at WSCU branches as criminals
move on to other institutions.” Â¥

Kathleen Sibley is a Toronto-based freelance writer.