By André de Lima Castro

The utility company’s idea of fighting the problem is based on ‘armour’ meters with high technology, high cost seals. These so-called ‘5th generation’ seals1 are based on electronic identification or ‘intelligent identification/numbering’, in order to avoid ‘accidental’ human errors when recording each sealing operation. This electronic identification is made possible by using bar coded and/or check digit numbers, or even active radio frequency identification (RFID). In some cases, utilities also choose barrier or semi-barrier type seals, in the belief that a seal should not only indicate pilferage, but also should simulate a heavy duty lock by providing a physical barrier to entry.

Yet, as the persistent high volume of meter tampering indicates, utilities are committing a disastrous error in specifying a high tech and/or heavy duty seal, possibly inspired by the myth that the best seal would be a ‘bomb seal’, that would explode in the case of tampering, probably killing the defrauder – a surreal situation!

SECURITY SEALS NOT INTENDED AS STAND ALONE PROTECTION
The US Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), together with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, have reached some important conclusions on seals.

  1. The proper procedures for using seals are known as ‘protocols’.
    Seals protocols are the official and unofficial procedures used for seal procurement, storage, checking out, record keeping, installation, inspection, removal, disposal, reporting, interpreting findings, and training. With good protocols, a modest seal can provide excellent security. Conversely, a sophisticated seal used poorly may be ineffective.
  2. Seals should not be used as the main line of defence but should be used as part of an overall security programme.

Los Alamos has analysed 213 different seals, both government and commercial, in detail. These seals vary from inexpensive, low-tech seals through expensive, reusable, high-tech active seals. The unit cost of the seals varies by a factor of more than 10,000. Most of these seals are in widespread use, with about half currently employed in applications that can be considered as ‘critical’ or ‘high security’. At least 16% of the seals are currently in use somewhere in the world for nuclear safeguards.

Among other conclusions, that study revealed that when US$1 is added to the seal’s cost, elevating it to the most elaborate type of seal, the time needed for its tampering amounts to only 2 seconds more. Thus adding US$1 to the unit cost of a seal would raise the cost of a potential tampering by an average of only US$0.27. This suggests that high-tech features turn out to be a red herring, masking failure with respect to some critical vulnerability items of the sealing system. Thus it is more important to incorporate in the unit cost of each seal the costs associated with the adoption of the Seals Protocol and only then to increase the technical features.

STANDARDS
ISO/PAS 17712, issued by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), came as a complement to the work of the DoD and DHS, in their Annex A, in confirming that in several other steps in the seal’s life, from procurement up to its removal and disposal, there are several possibilities of breaks in security. Either utilities must adopt some kind of protocol or losses with double digit figures will continue. Although the conclusions above were envisaged for sealing freight containers, the procedures are also applicable to other seals’ applications.

Clearly it is not enough to seal something with the most sophisticated security seal ever conceived. Seals are an integral part of a system in which all the component elements have to be considered, unless there is disregard for the purpose of the sealing itself.

INTERNATIONAL PROCEDURES
The Los Alamos National Laboratory and the above mentioned ISO/PAS recommendations, and particularly the Seals Protocol, may be summarised in the following points.

Supplier qualification

  • Check if the manufacturer has ISO 9001:2000 certification and complies with ISO/PAS 17712
  • Check if the manufacturer is referred to on the website of International Seals Manufacturers (www.ismasecurity.com)
  • Check if the literature and specifications of products are based on international standards
  • Check if the manufacturer is outsourcing its production and, if so, try to establish the source that manufactures the original parts and/or finished products for future tracking purposes.

Procurement

  • Limit acquisitions to a few manufacturers
  • Identify the types of seals and their features for application and training
  • Create technical specifications based on industry standards
  • Keep a record of acquisitions
  • Limit the occurrence of seals with duplicate numbering below 0.1 percent.

Storage

  • Store seals under secure conditions with strict control limiting access to the warehouse and to information regarding seal numbering.

Checking out

  • At the warehouse, record seals according to their serial numbering
  • Create a ‘chain of custody’, with stock taken at each working turn of the responsible agents.

Training

  • The literature supplied by the manufacturer on the correct seal use must be studied
  • This information and other related knowledge must be passed on to seal end users, outsourced parties and other suppliers/distributors.

Installing

  • Before application, seals should be examined for failure and discolouration, and their numbering, shape, size, etc. compared with those of the original seal
  • Since the seal locking depends on the correct application of the sealing thread, check its performance in sealing, to avoid thread sliding
  • For each model, the seal closing will follow the rules recommended by manufacturer
  • Sealing without observation of these details will turn the sealing agent into a tamperer, as this will amount to deliberate pre-tampering.

Recording

  • The seal numbering should be recorded and tracked either by hand or through electronic capture by bar code or RFID in order to ensure the link between the seal’s serial number and the sealed meter.

Reporting

  • The seal and the seal thread should be checked in minute detail to verify if there is a tampering situation
  • Again, it is necessary for a detailed knowledge of each seal type that its weak points be specially checked.

Removal – Interpreting findings

  • For a reliable inspection, seal removal should be done according to a previously approved method, in order to assure the conditions for the correct interpretation of the information obtained
  • The seal must be treated as a tamper indicating device, in case tampering occurs. Thus, it is necessary to observe its restricted custody, together with the meter, in order that both may be inspected by an independent laboratory.

Disposal

  • Seals should not be thrown away as ordinary garbage, as they contain data useful to defrauders
  • Used seals and their parts should be collected for analysis and destruction.

THE 6TH GENERATION SEAL
The need to control and track the several sealing steps summarised above has led to the arrival of the ‘6th generation’ seal – a new generation/classification developed by ELC Security Products. This so-called Securetrack is a sealing security system deployed, on one side, by the Fastlock seal, which combines all the technological advances of the 5th generation seals, and on the other side, with a software program named Virtual Seal, in which the tracking of the seal is comprehensively controlled via webbase from the manufacturing phase up to the interpretation of inspected seals and their disposal. This integrated tracking, already adopted by some utility companies, amounts to nothing less than the state-of-the-art in a security programme in the fight against meter tampering.

For more on the merits of this new system, visit www.securetrack.com.br.

* The 1st generation seals were made of clay or lead; in the 2nd generation the plastic seal made its appearance; in the 3rd generation they came to be numbered; the 4th generation introduced the high-relief numbering; and the 5th generation uses coding with electronic reading.