But Are We Safer?

High-tech security systems may concern privacy advocates, but they also help to prevent another September 11

Among the casualties of September 11, one of the greatest was Americans’ sense of security. Overnight, people became afraid to fly in airplanes, cross bridges, even go to the office. Five years later, those fears have abated, but they haven’t disappeared.

President George W. Bush and his allies would say they’ve gone a long way toward allaying fears of future attacks, pointing to what they say are successes in the war on terror and in particular thwarted terror plots.

But what role has technology played? Have developments in surveillance, communications, and biometrics made the world a safer place? "After 9/11, people were looking at security in an entirely new way and that required an evolution in technology," says Chris Grniet, vice-president at Kroll, one of the nation’s top risk consultancies and a unit of insurance giant Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC). "There have been a number of advancements in security technology that are very good relative to mitigating threats and risks."


  Take surveillance cameras, for example. There are as many as 30 million of them in the U.S. this year—a little less than one for every ten people in the country—and many have gotten smarter.

Companies such as Nice Systems (NICE), ObjectVideo, and 3VR are developing a field known as video analytics, giving otherwise dumb security cameras the ability to recognize faces, types of motion, and potential threats (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/13/05, "To Catch a Thief—on Video"). In 2003, Texas Instruments (TXN) and French video hardware and software provider ATEME released a video surveillance system that can be programmed to recognize when a car is parked in an area for too long or when a bag is dropped and left unattended. When the camera notices a problem, an alarm sounds, alerting the video operator to the situation.

Cameras can also be programmed to record only when something reaches alert status, reducing the extent to which cameras invade the privacy of passersby, as well as saving hard drive space. "It turns out the cameras are recording less than they would be otherwise," says Jason Halverson, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm. Halverson estimates that the market for relatively new video analytics alone was $60 million in 2005.


  Along with the emergence of video analytics have come advancements that better integrate security systems. Robert Siegel, GE Security’s (GE) general manager for video and software solutions, says that over the next few years video systems will be able to share information with larger surveillance units more easily and quickly. For example, a camera that catches a disturbing image on a bus will be able to send its information to a citywide surveillance system, alerting police in the subways and along the bus route that a problem is potentially on the way.

Siegel says the systems will let police track criminals or potential terrorists as they move from various points in an area and use different modes of transportation. "Law enforcement will easily tie those systems together—that will help catch bad guys more quickly," he says.

Scanning technology has also received a high-tech makeover. Where once scanners just searched for metal objects and potential weapons, today’s scanners can identify objects and see straight through clothing. Airports, such as San Francisco International Airport, are using computed axial tomography (CAT) scanners to quickly and thoroughly check bags. The scanners, best known for identifying medical problems, check the density of objects and match those densities with known threats. When a potentially dangerous object is noticed, the scanners alert operators to the need for additional surveillance.


  Immigration officials are also looking to more secure e-passports for help in spotting potentially dangerous individuals. In August, 2006, the U.S. State Dept. began issuing the documents, which have a chip containing a digital picture of the holder and can hold other biometric data.

Biometric information, such as fingerprints and DNA, is also being incorporated into locks. Today, everything from doors and safes to laptops feature fingerprint scanners that prevent people from getting into places where they do not belong (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/28/06, "Biometrics: Payments at Your Fingertips").

Entrepreneur Robert LaPenta believes biometric information is the key to preventing another terrorist disaster. The CEO of L-1 Identity Solutions (ID) is betting that such information will become a necessary part of securing homes, offices, and airports, among other things. "When the terrorists did what they did on September 11, their two most lethal weapons were passports and driver's licenses that gave them free access to every institution in this country," LaPenta says.

While fingerprint locks and CAT baggage scanners may concern privacy advocates, the high-tech security systems should also allay fears that another September 11 is in the near future. Kroll’s Grniet says: "Technology certainly is aiding us in our ability to identify threats and stop potential terrorists. Absolutely."

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