Asset tracking is a critical security function at bio-pharma company Sanofi.

“When we produce a product, we are responsible for that product until it gets to the consumer,” says Bhavesh Patel, Senior Director, Security Services & Technology.  “If we can’t track it, we have to dispose of that product, because we don’t know if it was tampered with.”

Across a wide spectrum of industries, security professionals leverage a range of tools and best practices to keep track of products and people. While technology is changing the game, asset tracking requires a delicate balancing act. How can enterprise security maintain transparency across assets, without breaking the bank?

Flawed Tools

The basic tools of asset tracking have been stable for some time. Enterprise security executives will use GPS to track people, vehicles and shipments of goods over big distances. They’ll turn to RFID chips and scanners for managing warehouses and controlling inventories. But these basic tools can be tricky to implement. Even as the price of RFID chips falls, the cost of a widespread deployment still can be prohibitive.

GPS has its limits, too. At security provider Art Guard, co-founder Bill Anderson says he would love to use GPS to track stolen artworks, but the batteries are simply too big. The tracking device “would be easily recognizable and just ripped off the piece. If by some chance it evaded detection, the batteries would die in about 90 minutes,” he says.

Given the limitations, enterprise security professionals often will tread a fine line. RFID would be great for tracking inventory, but it's too pricey. “A back-door to front-door system is very expensive. The tags themselves might be $1.25 and you need thousands and thousands of them,” says Senior Asset Protection Manager, Alan Greggo, CPP, CFE.

He’d like to be able to depend on GPS as shipments make their way through potential hot spots, but that’s also problematic. “In Mexico there’s a big issue where there are more truck hijackings, or drivers will park their trucks and offload some stuff on the side. You need to know where your trucks are at all times to ensure that merchandise doesn’t just disappear,” he says. But GPS alone doesn’t cut it. “If the truck driver is working with the thieves, they can either remove the GPS or find a way to block it, to jam the signal.”

Greggo often goes manual: He’ll tether product in stores, securing pricey devices in place and put tamper-proof locks on the trucks. Given the limitations, some security experts say they are looking to the IT community to deliver better solutions.

Emerging Tech

“Without a doubt technology is the driver behind a broad array of asset tracking solutions,” says Ty Richmond, president of Integrated Security Solutions and Technology for Allied Universal. He points to the rise of IoT, the Internet of Things, as one major trend shaping asset tracking. Smart-chip enabled devices can be leveraged to share geospatial information, and emerging 5G communications networks will make information more readily available to the security community.

 “Tracking is all about connectivity and speed of communication, so 5G technology is going to escalate the usability and scalability of all of this,” he says. In the past, “you did have some control, but you had major vulnerabilities and gaps and you had to use many manual resources. It was very expensive and time consuming. IoT will enable us to track location with a high degree of accuracy.”

Along those same lines, some are looking to robotics and automation as emerging capabilities in the asset-tracking arena. Brett Morrison served for a decade as Senior Director Asset Protection and Security – International at Walmart. He now heads up Global Security Solutions in Bentonville, Arkansas. He envisions robotics as a potential boon in settings where assets are frequently being checked in or out.

“You can have an unmanned robot take the place of a guard who has to check out that item. A robot can work 24/7, it never takes a break, it’s always ready to work, whereas a guard can call in sick,” he says.

Tracking ROI

The discussion starts with a consideration of risk versus value: What is the asset worth, and what would it cost to track it?

At digital security firm Agio, Associate Director of Cybersecurity Compliance Deana Fuller helps hospitals and other healthcare organizations track their stuff. There are always trade-offs, she said.

“You are not going to walk out the door with an IV stand, but you could try to make off with a wheelchair. We have done penetration testing and we’ve been able to walk away with a laptop from the nurse’s station, and then you lose not just the laptop but all personal data. What’s on that laptop and what can somebody do with it? That’s part of how you determine your tracking strategies,” she says.

Morrison has leveraged RFID for big items. “When you have high-value items, you want to know where it’s at and who has it. Then ROI is more easily justified. It’s part of your business model based on the risk of losing that item.”

From a business perspective, that risk assessment suggests that in some cases, security needs to be tracking not just the location of an item, but also how it is being used. At Mastercard, Deputy Chief Information Security Officer Shelbi Rombout uses sophisticated analytics to track the ways in which IT assets, including phones and laptops are put to use: Who’s logging in, from where, to do what? Behavioral tracking forms a key part of asset management within the IT security ecosystem. “By ensuring each user has the right access, you help to protect the entire environment,” Rombout says.

Looking across a range of industries, it’s possible to see how asset tracking brings security front and center in conversations about business processes.

“Say you have a construction company that wants to track high-value tools, to ensure they get to the proper person on site. They have to ask themselves: Is my construction site working on time and under budget because the tools are getting there on time? If not, where is the lag? Would tracking insight help to close that gap?” says Booz Allen Hamilton VP Andy Linn.

“On the retail side or in a warehouse, protection starts with knowing where it is. Then you have to have a plan to back that up, you have to know how you will take action or respond to that alert in real time,” Linn says.

That’s really the final piece of the asset tracking puzzle. Say you’ve identified the right tracking tool and justified the ROI. You’ve aligned the tracking program with the business need. What’s left for security to do? Mostly it’s policies and procedures.

Security executives need to consider the legal implications of their tracking programs. “Different courts would give you different answers,” says Mike Overly, an attorney with Foley & Lardner. At a minimum, “you need to disclose to people that their location is being tracked and what that information is being used for. ”

For security leaders, this suggests a new and emerging role that takes asset tracking well beyond the task of mere inventory management. It requires input from IT, from business line leaders, from legal counsel and others.

“Security is part of an enterprise-wide collaborative process,” Richmond says. “We talk about enterprise risk management, the sharing of information, the commonality of systems and process. In asset tracking, we are seeing the value in that growing every day.”