How can a utility address these revenue losses and the overall threat to system integrity? Effective security seals are part of the solution. With proper training and protocols, they allow utilities to discourage and detect meter tampering. However, seals alone are not enough. Complete system integrity has to include a system for tracking seals to utility employees.
Such a system allows a utility to ensure that a meter man has not given an extra seal to a customer; to know the identity of the employee responsible for installing a seal on any given meter; to hold an employee responsible for the quality of his work; and to identify the point at which theft of seals is actually occurring.
Known as a chain-of-custody program, the process tracks the security seals from their receipt at the warehouse to the final distribution to field personnel. The chain-of-custody can be reviewed to determine who is responsible for the seal and the equipment associated with it. Until now it has been difficult to set up a chain-of-custody system, due to the complexity of tracking the numerous employees who are involved in securing distribution equipment, and tracking the thousands or millions of seals they use to secure it.
Drawing upon the high-tech talent of the Silicon Valley area, NIC Products, Inc. has developed a software product, known as QUICKTRACK, which forms the backbone of a chain-of-custody system for utilities.
QUICKTRACK is a robust, Windows-based software program that can be accessed over LANs or WANs. It is secure, yet easy to use and maintain. QUICKTRACK tracks employees with a state-of-the-art sub-surface fingerprint recognition or electronic signature authentication. These technologies are used to verify employees' identity and link them to specific seals. Security seals are tracked via specially formatted barcodes on boxes and bags of seals. These barcodes identify seal type, colour, company, serial-number range and year of manufacture. They also include a check digit, which is a numerical formula that prevents the entry of erroneous or fraudulent barcodes. By combining employee authentication, barcode reading, and data management software, NIC has managed to address the elusive chain-of-custody issue.
Inventory Control – The utility knows how many seals are in inventory at any given time.
Motivates accountability – Because employees are explicitly “signing” for seals, they are motivated to:
- Report tampered or unsealed meters, instead of simply ignoring the problem and sealing the meters.
- Perform quality work, for example making sure the meter is installed correctly.
- Ensure that seals are not lost or given to unauthorised personnel.
- Avoid tampering with seals or meters.
Checks and balances – Various employees are involved in issuing and receiving seals – the warehouse manager, the supervisor and the field representatives. Since they all share accountability, they have a vested interest in holding each other accountable. The separation of responsibility makes theft much more difficult, because it requires collusion of two or more parties.
Fast – Barcodes and fingerprints can be scanned in seconds.
Accessibility – The system can be used on LANs or WANs, making it possible for multiple locations to tie into the same database. This facilitates the receipt and distribution of seals by multiple employees, from multiple locations, but at the same time allows for centralised control.
The software installs in minutes through the use of standard installation wizards, and business process changes are minimal. Essentially, utility employees follow the same processes for obtaining seals, only now the bags of seals are swiped with the barcode reader and then the employee “signs” for the seals so that they can be tracked. QUICKTRACK allows utilities to overcome the challenges of maintaining system integrity by implementing a chain-of-custody solution to track their seals.