An anti-theft system
is any device or method used to prevent or deter the unauthorized appropriation of items considered valuable. Theft
is one of the most common and oldest criminal behaviours. Where the ownership of a physical possession can be altered without the rightful owner's consent, theft prevention has been introduced to assert the ownership whenever the rightful owner is physically absent. Anti-theft systems have been around since individuals began stealing other people's property and have evolved accordingly to thwart increasingly complex methods of theft. From the invention of the first lock
to the introduction of RFID
tags and biometric identification, anti-theft systems have evolved to match the introduction of new inventions to society and the resulting theft of them by others.
Theft: Motive and Opportunity
Under normal circumstances, theft is prevented simply through the application and social acceptance of property law. Ownership is often indicated by means of visual marking (license plates, name tags). When clear owner identification is not possible and when there is a lack of social observance, people may be inclined to take possession of items to their own benefit at the expense of the original owner. Motive
are two enabling factors for theft. Given that motives for theft are varied and complex and are generally speaking not within the control of the victim, most methods of theft prevention rely on reducing opportunities for theft.
Motives for actively preventing theft
Items may require an anti-theft system for a variety of reasons, which may occur in combination depending on the type of item and its use:
- the item is expensive and/or has sentimental value (prestigious car, family heirloom, birthday gift, war medals, coin collection)
- the item is difficult/impossible to replace if lost (produced in low numbers, antiques, unique works of art)
- the item is easy to steal (retail/supermarket products, office stationery)
- the item may be left unattended in an unsafe environment (laptops in a library, cars in a carpark)
- inappropriate use of the item may cause considerable damage or may enable further unauthorized acts (theft of car keys, stolen building access keys, identity theft)
- the item is desirable to others (jewelry, mobile phones, rare collectibles, auto parts, industrial designs)
- the item is other wise un-obtainable: (Alcohol, Tobacco products, age related substances)
Use of Theft Prevention
Equally varied are the methods developed for theft prevention. Anti-theft systems have evolved to counter new theft techniques as they have appeared in society. The choice for a particular anti-theft system is dependent on several factors:
In addition to the initial acquisition cost of an item, the cost of replacement or recovery from its theft is usually considered when considering the cost of installing an anti-theft system. This cost estimation usually determines the maximum cost of the anti-theft system and the need to secure it. Expensive items will generally be secured with higher-cost anti-theft systems, while low-cost items will generally be secured at low cost. Insurance companies will often mandate a minimum type of anti-theft system as part of the conditions for insurance.
Threshold for Theft
Anti-theft systems are designed to raise the difficulty of theft to an infeasible (but not necessarily impossible) level. The kind of system implemented often depends on the acceptable threshold for theft. For example, keeping money in an inside shirt pocket raises the difficulty of theft above that necessary if the pocket were on a backpack, since unauthorized access is made sufficiently more difficult. Methods of theft evolve to decrease the difficulty of theft, increased by newer anti-theft systems. Because of evolution on both sides and the social aspect of theft, the threshold for theft is very dynamic and heavily dependent on the environment. Doors in quiet suburban neighbourhoods are often left unlocked, as the perceived thresholds for theft are very high.
Ease of Use
is often compromised through the lax application of theft-prevention practices and human nature in general. The ideal anti-theft device requires no additional effort while using the secured item, without reducing the level of security. In practice, users of security systems may intentionally reduce the effectiveness of an anti-theft system to increase its usability (see passwords
). For example, home security systems will often be enabled and disabled using easy-to-remember codes such as "1111" or "123", instead of more secure combinations.
Methods of Theft Prevention
There are a number of general categories of anti-theft systems:
Sequestering of valuable items
A very common method of preventing theft is the placement of valuables in a safe location. The definition of safe depends on the minimum threshold for theft as determined by the owner. Desk stationery is often considered secured if placed in an unlocked drawer away from view, while expensive jewelry might be placed in a safe
behind a picture in a home.
Raising the awareness of theft
Another common method is the alerting of other individuals to the act of theft. This is commonly seen in department stores, where security systems at exits alert store employees of the removal of unpaid items. Older car alarms
also fall into this category; newer systems also prevent the car from starting.
Preventing Removal of items
Yet another method is the attachment of items to a larger immobile object, usually furniture or walls.
Disabling the stolen item
Items with specific functionality can often be disabled to prevent the use of the item if it should be stolen. The anti-theft system can require disabling on every use, or enabling when the item needs to be secured. Disabling the anti-theft system is usually done by requiring identification of the owner at some stage of use. Identification can occur through physical or other means (physical keys, numerical codes, complex passwords, biometric identification). A passive immobilizer
makes car theft almost impossible because the vehicle cannot be started without a computer chip that is found within the ignition key. This can work even retrospectively: as a stolen credit card can easily be invalidated with a phone call to the issuing bank, the motivation to steal one is reduced.
are devices that are attached to products to prevent shop-lifting. Often used in conjunction with an Electronic article surveillance
Electronic items such as laptops, cell phones and even gadgets such as iPods now have software that enable them to "phone home" with information regarding their whereabouts and other information that can aid law enforcement to track the devices down.