As long as there have been banks, there have been bank robbers. But in the past decade, keeping up with criminal threats to the banking industry is becoming more high tech as security demands change. Today’s criminals need never set foot near a bank; they can now enter electronically and access bank card information. Identity theft is the other side of the coin, so to speak. But criminals can also threaten a bank, both on the premises and off, more directly. Because banks have taken their business to the street (by virtue of ATMs), security has had to follow in tow.

Much of the technology is improving in bank security, but, surprisingly, many financial institutions have yet to fall in line with the latest offerings. At this point, the greatest problem for managers at financial institutions is lack of education in what high-technology security systems can and cannot do.

Few industries require the same level of security as financial institutions. ATMs have added a new dimension to these security needs. Although there are some unprotected ATMs, most banks have a security system monitoring activity at all their ATMs, even at remote locations miles from the main branch.

On the street, the risk to money and personal safety is perhaps greater than inside the bank itself. Keeping track of ATM activity is an ever-expanding task and a centralized system is an urgent and ongoing need for some larger banks.

Slow to change

Most banks and financial institutions need the most up-to-date technology in their security systems and they don’t want their equipment to fall behind. But despite the technology available, on average, banks change their security system only every seven to 10 years. That’s not often enough, according to manufacturers.

The majority of banks still operate their camera systems with VCRs that may tape over old images on videotapes or that require storage space for archived video. Other financial institutions have transitioned to digital video recorders that store images on a hard drive and eliminate storage problems and erasures, and also provide easier and quicker access to specific events and can be tied to ATMs or point of sale as well.

Switching to digital offers stable playback and a better-quality picture that is jitter-free. Digital recording is no small business; there are about 300 digital video manufacturers and many specialize in making the kind of equipment banks need.

Along with digital recording and wireless security, integration is an ongoing trend in security systems. Numerous software companies have begun offering systems specifically for banking security.

One example is Geoffrey Industries in Parsippany, N.J., which manufactures and sells software to integrate camera and security functions. The Geoffrey software allows computerized access control and alarm monitoring from a central location. Camera monitoring is tied into the same system.

While Geoffrey works on the software and follows up on maintenance questions, electrical contractors generally provide the wiring, according to Geoffrey’s Director of Marketing Rachel Rothrock.

Searching for a standard

Finding a security standard to follow is next to impossible for banks since few are available. According to Gerald Forstater, CSI and chief engineer of Professional Systems Engineering LLC in Harleysville, Pa., the engineering, design and consulting service company has worked with banks and finance companies, including those involved with NASDAQ. He has found that banks’ security needs have not changed drastically. What has changed is the level of technology that runs those programs.

There is little uniformity about bank security. “There are fire standards,” Forstater said, “but nothing for security.”

Recordings themselves can vary as well, from what is known in the industry as “Charlie Chaplin” for its choppiness, to realtime recording, which gives a clear picture of what is happening but eats up tape or hard drive space.

For example, most banks require recording of bank tellers who are handling money at 15 frames per second, which is close to realtime recording. For this kind of recording, cameras must be high resolution. Banks cannot afford to miss the instant that a teller hides money in a pocket or drawer.

There are some standards being written for regional banks. The New York City Bank Security Task Force prepared recommendations for all New York City banks that use high-quality digital equipment.

The digital cameras must be installed to capture faces of clients during business transactions at teller stations and other key locations, such as entrances and exits. The task force recommends digital recording systems capable of easy viewing and retrieval of high-quality images and transferring the images to a portable form of media such as CD-R or DVD.

Those banks or branches which do not yet have digital recording equipment installed should have CCTV analog equipment and cameras in sufficient quantities and of high enough resolution to provide for easy identification, according to the New York task force.

Whether banks have regional standards to follow or not, digital cameras have become the favorite for larger institutions. They are the best recordings to have in the event of an alarm. Most have the ability to record an event as it takes place, as well as events just prior to the alarm. The system can be set up to recognize real events by monitoring changes in brightness or determining when someone enters the camera field, filling up pixels and setting off an alarm.

A pervasive problem

One pervasive problem bank managers encounter with digital systems is lack of education. If an electrical contractor only installs the wiring, he usually has little information to provide the bank about how the system will work.

“Lots of customers are unhappy because they don’t understand it,” Forstater said. “Until someone shows them the benefits, it’s often a real struggle.” The digital security system may be an easy sell, since marketers do their part in describing its advantages. On the other hand, it is not so easy for bank managers to determine how to take advantage of pan and zoom functions without proper explanation, for example.

Forstater sees security recording systems changing about every five years at most banks as VCRs give out. Well over half the VCRs being replaced “have an absolutely awful picture,” he said. Within a few years VCRs begin to “sync out and pictures are distorted.”

Hot products

There are plenty of choices among digital imaging devices and that can be good and bad for the novice electrician. Here’s a small sampling of what’s available:

• Panasonic Security Systems, Secaucus, N.J., makes a color dome camera (WV-NS324) that can be connected to either analog or digital IP networks. It comes with a zoom lens, pan and tilt mechanisms. When connected to an Ethernet, images can be viewed on a personal computer.

• For low-light situations, Sony Electronics Inc., Park Ridge, N.J., offers the SSC-M183 and SSC-M383 monochrome video cameras and the SSC-DC193 and SSC-DC393 color video cameras designed to blend in with their environments. They can be used in a wide variety of general applications, including banks and financial institutions.

• Sony’s SSC-M183 and SSC-DC193 video cameras feature a 1/3 Super HAD IT CCD. The SSC-M383 and SSC-DC393 video cameras utilize a 1/3 IT CCD and offer high picture quality and sensitivity. All of these video cameras use Turbo AGC (up to 24dB), which allows them to clearly distinguish subjects in low light. These cameras feature a CS mount and can connect easily with either DC Servo or Video Servo lenses. They have dual power capability (24V AC or 12V DC), and Backlight Compensation (BLC), which automatically compensates for backlighting that can cast shadows on surveillance subjects.

• Eagle Vision in Jacksonville, Fla., offers CatchUm USB software which digitally records activity in and around the ATM machine with a transaction receipt overlaid on the video.

• Geoffrey Industries manufactures the GVSD digital recording system with searchable indexed storage for instant access to stored video. Access is based on a variety of criteria such as day, time, camera, alarm, etc.

The system includes immediate retrieval of transactions and integrates with Geoffrey Access Control Software using GVTR Geoffrey Video Transaction Retrieval to link recorded video with access control system events. It provides day/time synchronization within one minute. Security ensures only authorized personnel can access video records. Bank security can view live video in single, four, 12 or 16 screen multiplex through a remote video server.

Despite all the high tech offerings, however, some manufacturers predict digital recording will not completely replace the VCRs anytime in the near future. One reason is that VHS tapes are easy to read back and preferred by most local police. Until law enforcement are able to read digital images on the bank’s network, much of that technology won’t change.

Banks and financial institutions have their work cut out for them in protecting the facility, their assets and everything on and off the premises. Higher technology makes sense, and more often than not, digital products provide the best solution.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.