Blog: We're Watching For You, Al Qaeda

Jan. 26, 2005 11:36 am
New York City

I remember right after 9/11, when everyone felt so vulnerable. We'd just been attacked in our own backyard, and there were lots of discussions about what might come next. One of the biggest fears seemed to be bands of terrorists striking major shopping malls, making people scared to leave their homes and further damaging our economy.

Thank god it hasn't happened, but who knows what might be in the works?

I thought about this when I got the assignment to go to the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey, not far from our office in Midtown Manhattan. Police and technology experts were prepared to demonstrate a new high-tech surveillance system for FOX, designed to make malls (and schools and airports and any number of other high-traffic areas) safer and more secure.

What I saw blew me away. Not only is this new project really cool, it's also a little scary, with seemingly limitless applications in the real world. It's an incredible blend of cameras and computers that makes existing security systems much smarter and potentially much more effective at stopping criminal activity, even BEFORE the crime takes place!

If it sounds like a movie, it looks like one too.

Here are some examples. The camera/computer combo can be trained to look for unattended bags. A security guard doesn't have to continuously watch for a bag to be left behind — the computer does it for him. It can count the number of people going up and down escalators (so, for example, you could know in an instant if there are people trapped upstairs in the event of a fire), and it can set off an alarm if someone goes up or down the wrong way.

It can monitor entrances and exits to see if people are loitering or behaving in suspicious ways, (the recent kidnapping and murder of a Wal-Mart clerk in Texas comes to mind here) and it can also track movement in parking lots.

It can be tied in with fire alarms, air quality monitors, HJAC, lighting, door locks, and can be linked with other malls, so if something is happening in more than one place at the same time that too can set off warning bells.

Best of all, the system is connected to the local police department and to police vehicles with encrypted wireless technology; officers can monitor situations from headquarters, their patrol cars, or mobile response vans as they roll up to the scene.

There's more. Cameras in tunnels and on interstates can be stitched together to create one seamless scene of traffic flow. Some of the cameras have the ability to zoom in and read license plates, so cops know not only where a vehicle is and what it's doing but who’s behind the wheel, or at least whose car it is.

Some of the technology is already in use in a variety of settings, but the Garden State Plaza project is unique because it's bringing together experts from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and state and local law enforcement agencies, who are spending a million dollars in state and federal grants to test the various applications and look for new ones, too. Donald Sebastian, the senior VP for research and development at NJIT, told me the hope is to engage every possible resource to outsmart potential threats. “We're creating extra eyes...extra ears...even extra brains,” he said. In this way law enforcement can focus its efforts where they're most needed, WHEN they're most needed.

There may be opposition to the new technology, especially from people worried about "Big Brother." How many innocent people idling in a parking lot or waiting for a friend by a door will get hassled for no reason? How many benign forgotten shopping bags will be perceived as a dangerous threat? How many people will be watched who don't want to be? How much privacy will be sacrificed and money spent for a threat that may not even exist?

Sebastian and the other backers of the system say it will actually reduce false alarms, especially over time. They say that the more the system is used, the smarter it will become, and the safer we'll all be.

One can only hope...

E-mail Rick!

[Ed. note: Click the video tab in the upper right to watch video of Leventhal's reports.]

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