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Fusing to Fight Copper Thefts

​WHEN DAN JENKINS, CPP, talks about copper thefts, his descriptions conjure up the Old Testament story of how a plague of locusts descended on Egyptian fields. Only in this case, it is hordes of thieves who descend on anything made of copper. “The appetite for it is insatiable,” says the corporate security director for Dominion Virginia Power.

Copper thefts have a cascading effect on operations, because many are from grounding conductors in electrical substations, Jenkins explains. That creates public safety problems for the regional power company, says Mike Helck, Dominion’s director of electrical substation and transmission reliability. By breaking into the substation and removing the copper grounding, thieves increase the likelihood that they, Dominion employees, or even a curious passerby who wandered into a vandalized substation could be hurt or killed by an electrical charge.

Another, though more remote, danger is that damage from copper thefts could result in widespread power outages, says Jenkins. He notes that copper thefts have led to small outages in the past. And because the problem is not confined to Dominion, it’s a fear that is shared by the FBI. In 2008, the FBI published a report stating that copper thefts jeopardized U.S. national security.

Fighting the problem has not been easy. In Virginia, however, Dominion’s relationship with the Virginia Fusion Center has given the power company a new tool to help it position its security resources more effectively to help deter further thefts and prevent harm to critical infrastructure. In September 2010, after hearing about copper theft frequently during monthly discussions with critical infrastructure owners and operators, the Virginia Fusion Center introduced Dominion to GeoEye, a geospatial software company it had begun working with a month earlier as part of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate pilot program.

Originally developed to predict where Afghan and Iraqi insurgents would place roadside bombs, GeoEye’s geospatial predictive analytics tool, called Signature Analyst, uses advanced mathematical algorithms to analyze open-source and classified data to identify future criminal hotspots. Known as predictive analysis, the methodology allows police and companies to allocate resources more intelligently. The goal is to prevent crimes from happening rather than reactively responding to them afterward. It’s an advantage Capt. Steven Lambert, head of the Virginia State Police’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, which houses the Virginia Fusion Center, called “getting to the left of an event.”

Using Dominion’s data about previous copper thefts, combined with approximately 170 other data sources, such as an area’s income level and road map data, GeoEye provides Jenkins with a monthly breakdown of the top 10 substations that are most likely to get robbed in particular regions of Virginia. These stations are selected because they “seem to mimic the same characteristics” that occurred previously in a given area, explains GeoEye’s Senior Geospatial Analyst Will Albers.

Albers is careful to note that just because a station ranks as the highest-risk doesn’t mean it will get hit. “I’m not very comfortable saying this is going to happen, but I am comfortable saying that these 10 are the most likely,” he explains.

The biggest correlating factor the software found was the proximity of substations to scrap metal dealers, which Albers translated as “the ability to get rid of the stolen merchandise quickly.”

Another recurring correlation was a substation’s conspicuousness. Proximity to roads is also a factor.  Dominion began using the analytical product in February to identify facilities deemed at a higher risk of theft; the company then enhanced security at those sites. The information is shared with the Virginia State Police. The police can then see which power stations are more in need of patrols to help deter thieves.

Dominion’s security upgrades, such as camera systems and alarms, at higher risk facilities have enabled the company to disrupt several copper thefts. While they did not catch the thieves, they prevented them from taking anything.

Lambert believes the collaboration over copper thefts is an example of the value of having state fusion centers shift from a counterterrorism approach to one that deals with all crimes and all hazards. “Copper thefts at the right place could cause a chain reaction that could have catastrophic ramifications on our ability to function as a society and protect ourselves,” Lambert said. Critics, including civil libertarians and some counterterrorism stakeholders, however, call it mission creep.

Jenkins agrees that an all-crimes, all-hazards approach is the appropriate mission for intelligence fusion centers, because crimes like this could have broad ramifications for society. “If we didn’t address this problem, we believed that eventually we were going to have a significant [power] loss,” says Jenkins.

That doesn’t just affect Dominion, Lambert notes, it affects public safety as a whole.