More Data, Less Noise

“Everyone worries about weapons being smuggled in with shipping cargo, but those really just scratch the surface of what could happen at a major port,” Alex Genin, president of VIPsystems, a video surveillance technology systems developer based in Houston, Texas explained to HSToday.
He spun a plausible scenario: “Just think of a huge tanker taking off from a loading facility in Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Say it’s got 2 or 3 million barrels of oil. It ships across the Atlantic, where it’s taken over somewhere in the ocean by a terrorist cell operating out of a used Russian submarine. Say it’s headed for a large cargo port like the Port of Houston, which is located right near a refinery terminal. What would they face today? About 20 miles out from shore a dinky little speedboat shows up to escort them to shore. To serious terrorists, that’s a joke. They take the boat out without flinching. So then the tanker is only 10 miles out and running toward theport at full steam. What can you do then? If you’re lucky, the Coast Guard, realizing what’s happening, will call in a Navy helicopter, which will take about 20 to 30 minutes to arrive. Armed with surface-to-air missiles, the terrorists take the copter down. Very soon, you have a 3-million-barrel tanker only a few miles from shore, a moving fire bolt ready to generate a mini-nuclear explosion causing massive loss of life and capable of paralyzing shipping for weeks or even months, while causing oil prices to skyrocket.”
Over the past three years, scenarios like these, once the stuff of sci-fi espionage thrillers, have become the familiar—perhaps too familiar—currency of the American imagination. At best, they serve as dramatic reminders of just how wide and rich the universe of vulnerable targets scattered throughout America continues to be.
While heightened awareness of potential dangers is a necessary starting point for effective security, it is not sufficient. Indeed, an obsession with doomsday scenarios without the tools to accurately distinguish real from potential threats can actually be detrimental to security, resulting in a kind of paralysis of paranoia. It’s a point made tellingly by the anonymous author of the book Imperial Hubris, who wrote: “Lack of discernment results in a massive misapplication of manpower, computer time and national level intelligence collection systems against a mass of threats, most of which are palpably absurd. As a result, like a fire department plagued by false alarms, analysts, spies, equipment and police at all levels are worn out chasing nonexistent threats. An atmosphere is created where the constant crying of wolf dulls our analytic edge.”
The key challenge, and promise, of the emerging generation of surveillance and detection technologies is to hone that analytic edge by providing better tools for gauging and proactively responding to real threats, ranging from conventional explosives to hazardous chemical and biological materials to radiological weapons of mass destruction. This transition, as described to HSToday by several experts, is being made possible not by any single revolutionary “silver bullet” but through the evolution of detection and surveillance tools that have been present in more primitive form for years, or even decades. In each area of deployment, the impetus in new technology development is the same: to give first responders affordable tools with higher and faster throughput, greater precision and sensitivity, more portability and more flexibility than traditional tools.
Video surveillance
All these transitions are evident in the area of video surveillance, a technology which until very recently remained mired in the static “sensor-to-console” model introduced in the 1960s.
“Security generally, and video surveillance in particular, has historically moved forward very slowly and conservatively,” observed Glenn McGonnigle, CEO of Atlanta, Ga.-based surveillance firm VistaScape. “For decades, progress meant not much more than better image quality. Most frustratingly to security practitioners, surveillance has been the biggest example of a stovepiped system. It’s been based on what I call swivel-chair integration. That’s where a guard has to swivel back and forth between lots of different screens, all monitoring different scenes, and try to make sense out of it all.”
The newest generation of surveillance tools moves beyond static local boxes toward digitally networked platforms.
“As the number of cameras grows, and the number of sensors attached to them expands” said Bill Stuntz, CEO of Broadware, a Cupertino, Calif.-based video networking systems integrator, “it makes no sense anymore to have people trying to watch multiple screens endlessly until their eyes glaze over. People aren’t made to do that. But computers are happy to do nothing but watch and can be programmed to watch solely for specific things.”
“Humans are good responders when they see some relevant information,” McGonnigle added. “But 99 percent of what’s surveyed is irrelevant. The question is how to isolate that 1 percent. The advent of digital video networking allows data from a multitude of screens and sensors to be fed into a central repository for analysis according to policy criteria set at the enterprise level.”
VistaScape’s Security Data Management System (SDMS) combines the output from multiple cameras and field sensors, storing data from various screens in a central location, where it is fused into a single multidimensional model. Data can be retrieved in real time and displayed on a virtual 3D model of the entire geographical area under surveillance. Security managers can view live video feeds and also bring up detailed descriptions. They also can define rules for triggering alarms based on pre-selected criteria.
SDMS consists of three main software suites: sensor, data center and command and control. Each suite is built with an open architecture that allows continual addition and subtraction of surveillance applications. The platform, for example, can incorporate technologies such as radar, global positioning systems (GPS), Radio Frequency ID tags (RFID) and even chemical and biological sensors.
Both the Port of Long Beach, Calif., and the Port of Orange, Texas, have implemented the platform to link video and sensor data collected throughout the portal environment into a central command to automatically detect security policy violations. Any trespass or transgression of the virtual barrier triggers alerts to immediately notify appropriate officers.
VistaScape’s wide area platform also has been chosen as part of an advanced perimeter security system for Helena Regional airport in Washington State. The company’s software analytics detect, classify and track objects in real time, distinguishing between planes, people, cars, cargo and other objects.
“This integrated approach marks a major step forward,” said Ron Mercer, the airport director. “It shows us the entire secured environment comprehensively in a single interface. We can see everything that’s moving throughout our site, and the system will track and monitor anything that is headed in a direction that is off limits.”
VIPsystems, a new product developed by the company of the same name, allows first responders at ports, as well as Coast Guard personnel, to view a cargo vessel, tanker or ship prior to its approach to national territorial waters and identify a ship’s crew. Using a satellite hookup, the system enables real-time monitoring and video and biometric and analytic data on all passengers, the crew and captain from any point. This data can be matched with registered database files stored with the port authority. In case of emergency, the system offers the ability to shut down engines via an action-control line. The system is currently undergoing demonstrations at the Port of Houston.
“We’re beginning to see a critical mass of ship owners, insurance companies and government agencies who now see clearly that the relevant metric here is not the equipment cost but the cost of not protecting ships and ports”explained Genin. “That’s an important threshold. Usually, it’s the cost factor of new technology that makes decisionmakers balk. But we’re looking at a cost of under $100,000, or 3 cents a barrel on each oil tanker.”
When ADT Security Services Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., tackled closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems, its designers and researchers quickly realized that one of the greatest problems with current systems was the interface, according to Sam Brunetti of ADT’s Federal Systems Division. In most systems, cameras are arranged by numbers and operators have to use computer keyboards and mice to access and manipulate the cameras, as well as to figure out the locations of cameras from long lists of numbers and locations.
“With a lot of these systems, the more the customers invest and the larger the systems get, the less efficient they become. When you have small systems, you can remember where each camera is. But that’s not the case with large systems, like in airports, where you have hundreds of cameras,” said Brunetti. Operators were left hunting for the locations of the cameras when they spotted an incident and wanted to respond.
ADT’s solution is a system called T-Control, which made the user interface as intuitive as possible. Operators can quickly find the location of cameras and, using a finger on a touch-screen monitor, move the camera up, down or sideways or rotate it at the same speed the finger is drawn across the screen.
“We like to say that you have one finger and nine levels of redundancy,” Brunetti pointed out. “It’s very user friendly. If you can hunt-and-peck, you can use this system.” T-Control has been installed at Reagan National, Dulles and the Atlanta airports, among others, and is being examined by the Pentagon. The US Postal Service has run tests on it for installation at mail-handling centers.
Explosion detection
“When it comes to explosion detection,” said Steve Broadway, vice-president of marketing at Nomadics of Stillwater, Okla., “the biggest challenge has always been combining increased sensitivity to explosives with the high throughput needed in public and commercial settings. That’s always been a tradeoff. We need to find better ways of providing security without impeding commerce and people’s normal life to the greatest extent possible.”
To this end, Nomadics recently developed a detection solution known as “Fido,” which screens packages, shipping containers, vehicles and people for traces of nitro-aromatic explosives. The product is based on a new chemical-sensing material known as amplifying fluoresce polymer (AFP). In the absence of explosive compounds, the polymers fluoresce when exposed to light. When molecules indicative of explosive compounds are present, the fluorescence drops. In August 2004, the US Air Force ordered 10 Fido explosive detectors to be used at Tyndale Air Force base to develop a screening system for military air cargo.
Smiths Detection North America, located in Pine Brook, NJ, has developed and recently introduced its IonScan Sentinel II. The product is a walk-through scanner that can identify microscopic amounts of more than 40 different kinds of explosives. The product works by dislodging particles and vapors from a person and collecting and analyzing the data. An overhead fan washes air over and around the subject, who’s standing in a portal. While this continuous air curtain is driving all materials downward, air jets dislodge particles. The entire sample is directed downward into a collector vent located at the subject’s feet. The high flow of the sample collected is passed through folded metal mesh. Once the collection vacuum turns off, a bubble seals the mesh into a preconcentrate, which is heated to vaporize all the particles in the sample.
Also, Smiths Detection has developed a next-generation hand-held security wand. The wand utilizes terahertz light waves to detect and identify metallic and non-metallic weapons, including bulk and other explosivesconcealed beneath clothing, inside shoes or in other objects. Terahertz light, which lies between microwave and infrared in the electromagnetic spectrum, passes through clothing, paper and plastics to detect metal, ceramic or plastic weapons. According to Smith, the new wands will provide improved security over hand-held metal detectors by reducing the number of false alarms that lead to invasive manual searches.
Another vendor at the forefront of new explosion-detection tools is General Electric Infrastructure of Wilmington, Mass., which recently introduced its “EntryScan3,” the fruit of a five-year partnership between GE, Penn State University’s Gas Dynamics Laboratory, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA).
The EntryScan’s sample-collection system takes advantage of a natural airflow phenomenon called the “human convection plume.” This design eliminates the need for forced air from a fan, which might stir up contaminants, and enables clearer sample acquisition for higher detection sensitivity. The system utilizes a trap spectrometer technology that allows its users to detect a wider range of contraband by deploying an ion trap capable of detecting both positive and negative ions.
The detector has so far been installed at four airports in a live pilot project, and is being deployed by TSA as part of its Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot (TRIP) program for screening railway-passenger baggage for explosives.
Chemical and HAZMAT detection
“The real challenge of next-generation detection,” said Scott Kahn, chief research scientist at Accelrys, a computational sciences firm in San Diego, Calif., “is to develop detection that’s both more sensitive and more precise. In a military situation, an alarm can be sounded and, if it’s wrong, you just get an all clear and soldiers take their masks off. But you can’t afford to press the panic button and have an entire city evacuated on the basis of imprecise readings.”
In partnership with Northrop Grumman, Accelrys is currently developing bioagent detectors to precisely measure the presence of bacteria, viruses and toxin proteins. Its software uses modeling and visualization to analyze and predict the properties and behavior of chemical and biological systems.
“Awareness is the first step, and tools to capitalize on that awareness are the next step,” Kahn says. “But detection tools are only useful if they’re based on accurate awareness of what threats are. We’ve attempted to apply the discipline of bio-informatics and drug discovery to relate the practices of detection and countermeasures. Either one without the other is limited. Our horizons can’t be limited by what we currently think of as bio-terror. Any area that’s potentially virulent and lethal is something we have to imagine can be adapted for terror. Tracking pathogens is very tricky. Unlike inorganic chemicals, organisms can’t be depended on to always act in predictable ways.”
Using the Accelrys molecule modeling software system, Sensor Research and Development of Orono, Maine, is developing tools that fabricate and synthesize a variety of sensing materials, including metals, metal oxide and films for environmental modeling.
In addition to new modeling tools to increase accuracy and sensitivity of readings, newer solutions also attempt to tackle two major problems with traditional chemical detectors—bulkiness and slow testing times.
Last fall, Smiths Detection launched the first handheld biological detection unit capable of identifying anthrax. The tool, called Bio-Seeq, is able to test for anthrax on-site and provides test results within half an hour, compared to traditional devices, which usually take 12 to 48 hours.
“The advantage of the new tool is that, for the first time, we are able to bring the lab right into the field, where responders can accurately gauge the nature of any potential threat in minutes, rather than hours or days,” explained Smiths Detection NA president Bill Mawer. “This makes the prospects for effective countermeasures improve drastically.”
“The difference between older detection tools and new is that, with older systems, you needed to actually wipe down particle samples,” said Broadway. “What we’re working on are techniques that allow us to search the air for molecules.”
Nomadics is integrating amplifying fluorescent polymer into a series of sensors for detecting chemical and biological agents in real time. These systems have been designed to be lightweight and portable enough for first responders to use in the field. They are adaptable for cargo, vehicle and passenger screening. Another class of chemical detectors being developed by Nomadics is called Chemical Warfare Indicating Chromophores (CWICs). CWICs offer real time monitoring of dangerous chemicals at sensitivity levels well below the concentrations that pose threats to humans.
RAE Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., recently introduced a “sniffer,” a photo ionization detector that measures the presence of volatile organic compounds in parts per million and also tests the air with two electrochemical toxic sensors. The system has demonstrated the ability to be able transmit data in real time up to two miles away to a central monitoring system. The system is now installed in each subway station in Manhattan and in major transportation hubs, including Penn Station in New York.
Radiation detection
It is in the highest-stakes realm of radiation detection that detection/surveillance must catch up. Traditional radiation detectors, which scan for gamma rays and neutrons, were, for example, not sensitive enough to reliably pick up emissions from a well-shielded cache of highly enriched uranium material that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Radiation portals have been deployed at northern border crossings and select container-shipping facilities. These devices, pillar-like arrays through which vehicles and ships pass, can screen for emissions from radioactive material that could be used in a “dirty bomb.” Deployment of these devices is expected to ramp up considerably over the next few years. There remain thorny problems with the technology, however. Most radiation portals in use, for instance, are prone to “nuisance” alarms on shipments of material with low levels of radioactivity, ranging from cat-box litter to bananas. They also can be triggered by people who recently underwent certain medical procedures, such as X-rays.
Although research continues, improvements are slow and incremental. A few recent developments, however, suggest progress.
RAE Systems has developed a neutron pager capable of detecting gamma-ray and neutron sources. Its Celium iodine and lithium iodine scintillators provide low-level detection in a compact unit said to be hundreds of times more sensitive than traditional Geiger detectors. This sensitivity alerts first responders to the presence of a radiation threat well before they might be exposed. It also is designed to allow security persons to instantly detect smuggled nuclear material.
Because the units are portable, mobile security personnel can provide detection throughout an entire geographic area, offering far more deployment flexibility than traditional fixed-location detectors.
A significant hurdle looming on the horizon is coherently and seamlessly integrating the newest breakthroughs in explosives, chemical, biological and radiological research. This summer, Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., conducted a test demonstration of a mobile system that may be the prototype of such an integrated network. Called Sensor Management Architecture (SMA), the network is composed of biological, chemical and radiological sensors and video cameras all able to monitor data in unison across a small, approximately 1.5-mile geographic location, such as a sports arena or shopping mall. In the event it detects a harmful agent, alarms would be activated identifying the agent and notifying emergency personnel. Officers could then immediately determine the level of threat and the agent released, simulate and model environmental conditions and search video feeds for the whereabouts of suspects.
Future prospects
Future progress in detection and surveillance, most experts surveyed believe, entails closing two major gaps. One is an education gap between what’s already feasible technologically and the information currently available to first responders and policy makers.
“The biggest obstacle is the awareness gap between what’s possible and what most in the first-responder community know is out there,” acknowledged Stuntz, the CEO of Broadware. “People’s thinking about technology is often five years out of date. It’s not their fault, they’re busy with other things and they’ve maybe been burned with some of the hype that often goes with technology. But there are now many real solutions out there that can make people safer right away.”
The other obstacle is a process gap between the research lab and the field.
“Our real challenge is partly technological but, more importantly, it’s developing the ability to take the best science that’s been going on at the lab level and bringing it into the field in an easy, affordable format that a fireman without a PhD in engineering can make use of quickly,” offered Bill Mawer of Smiths Detection.
“In software, you’re used to getting stuff done in a few weeks, if you just sit in a room and concentrate,” said Broadway. “But detection technology takes a long time. The cycle from lab to field can take years, even decades. So there needs to be a longer view. The science needs to be aligned with real problems. You can’t just expect the technology to be there on short notice when you decide, ‘This is important and needs to get done.’ The research pipeline has to already be there. I think great strides have been made by administrators. They are thinking strategically. The problem comes from elected politicians, who are less based in science and technology and more on the psychology of the moment.”
Social philosophers once gave the name “Panopticon” to the social dream (or nightmare) of an all-seeing surveillance state. It remains the dominant motif of most discussions among both advocates and critics of detection and surveillance technology applications.
Yet for all the justifiable concerns of civil libertarians, the most advanced and promising detection and surveillance tools actually have as their goal a less intrusive, more focused approach. The goal of the new generation of detection/surveillance tools is to more quickly and effectively eliminate the “noise” and “false positives” that have plagued more heavy-handed and clumsy surveillance tools of the past, identifying and expending precious resources only on the real threats.
Though that goal remains more hope than reality, the technology is clearly moving in the right direction. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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