Operation Provident: an ounce of prevention

Imagine what would happen if your personal computer or laptop disappeared. What would this cost you in time, money and frustration, let alone the loss of important research findings, papers or even personal data? Theft happens every day, and, by the time you’ve finished reading this article, someone somewhere will have had their computer stolen.

Each year laptops, desktop computers, flat-screen monitors, digital cameras and projectors vanish from university campuses across Canada. Not only is the computer stolen, valuable software disappears and data is lost. Often the data is confidential or critical to the successful operation of a research project or completion of a thesis. The problem is not limited to students. It impacts faculty as well.

What is Operation Provident?
Operation Provident is a national numbering system. It is a property identification system that is designed to discourage theft and aid in the recovery and identification of stolen property. A unique number is assigned to each institution that signs on with Operation Provident. The identification number will assist any police officer across Canada to quickly determine the ownership of recovered property. This system also acts as a deterrent against theft.

How does Operation Identification work?
When police recover stolen property, they check their files to determine if the equipment is registered with Operation Provident. If you are reporting a theft of property, be sure to inform the police that your items have been marked with an Operation Identification number.

What items should be marked?
All items of value should be engraved with York’s unique identification number. Here is a list of items commonly engraved with the Operation Provident number:

  • A.V. Equipment
  • Calculators
  • Cameras
  • Computers
  • Handheld Computers
  • Fax Machines
  • Laptops
  • Monitors
  • Printers, Scanners
  • Projectors
  • Tools

How can I engrave my property?
York’s Department of Security Services will engrave, free of charge, all computers, peripherals, lab equipment, and other valuables.  

The unique identifier is assigned to York University for the purpose of marking or engraving computer equipment and can be traced to York by any police agency across Canada. The potential exists for stolen property to be recovered by police (and the victim identified) before the victim knows a theft has occurred.

Such was the case several years ago when thefts of computing equipment from York’s Faculty of Arts started to occur with greater frequency. In an effort to stem the losses, staff in the Faculty of Arts information technology department partnered with York’s Security Services to implement Canada’s Operation Provident identification system (see box at right).

"In the past, the Faculty of Arts experienced a rash of thefts of computer equipment and it was difficult to pinpoint exactly how this was happening as there was no pattern," says Mohit Sahni, the Faculty’s director of academic technology services (ATS). "Our team quickly realized that we had to do something to limit the losses and we engaged with York Security to implement a number of security provisions across the Faculty of Arts."

"When users lose their computers, ATS has to respond quickly," says Sahni. "It requires ATS to provide a temporary replacement computer urgently before ordering a new one. This results in unnecessary service calls and places an undue demand on ATS staff."

Preventative measures were put into place including installation of motion-detector alarms, fibre-optic cable and aircraft cables for all computers in the Faculty of Arts student labs. Aircraft cables were also installed for all office computers. The alarms were wired into York’s Security Services Office for added protection. The Faculty also decided to brand its computer equipment with an Operation Provident identification number.

"When Security Services announced that they were getting involved with Operation Provident, Faculty of Arts decided to get involved with the program," says Eric Mohan, manager, computing services in ATS.

Sahni, Mohan and their ATS colleagues set out to learn more from Security Services about the program. They decided that, given the scale of  the Faculty of Arts, they should invest in their own branding iron. Now almost all of the existing equipment and every new piece of computer equipment in the Faculty of Arts is branded before it is installed in a lab, classroom or office. The Faculty of Arts has a 95 per cent identification rate of its existing 2,000 computing assets.

Left: The Operation Provident brand number and brand iron. Photo by Eric Mohan.

"This preventive measure has reaped huge rewards for the Faculty of arts. Losing a computer is like losing a telephone," says Sahni. "All of a sudden you are cut off from your work, teaching and research activity. The nuisance factor is immense."

Now, notes Sahni, "this can be minimized, if not avoided altogether. An additional aspect to all of this is that Faculty and computing plan budgets are not formulated for computer thefts and stolen equipment. So, a few thefts can result in a significant financial impact." 

Since partnering with York’s Security Services and implementing Operation Provident, Sahni says, there has been a remarkable decline in thefts. In fact, over the past academic year not a single theft has been reported. "We usually lose computers from offices or units where there are a number of people working on a computer or it is in an open place and that has not happened," says Sahni. "Operation Provident, offers an immediate warning. It is like a sign that says ‘Beware, guard dog on premises’. It is an immediate deterrent to anyone tempted to steal a computer."

"Once the equipment has been branded or engraved with the Operation Provident number, a sticker  is placed on the office door which tells those entering that the equipment is part of the identification system," says Dragan Spasojevic, manager of security operations for York’s Security Services.

"It is a problem that is not going away, Although it may never be eliminated, you can reduce your chances of being the next victim," says Spasojevic. "By taking a few simple steps before something happens, you prevent a problem that can impact you for months or years to come.

"Sometimes it is not the value of the computer, it is the software that people are after when they steal a computer,"  says Spasojevic. "Several years ago, a student who had just completed work on his PhD thesis left his computer on a desk and it was stolen. He had not backed up his data and years of work and research disappeared with the computer. It was a real tragedy."

This summer, York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering signed on with York Security Services to implement Operation Provident. Identifcation of the Faculty’s equipment is underway.

Members of the York Keele campus community who would like to subscribe to this service should contact Silva Redigonda at ext. 22255 or e-mail sil@yorku.ca to set up a time to have their York-issued equipment engraved. For the Glendon campus, contact Rachid Ennaffati at ext. 88477 or e-mail rennaffa@yorku.ca

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor