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Tech

Making Friends at the London Counter Terror Expo

Meeting the grim, bad and paranoid men whose job it is to pump the world full of guns and fear.
May 29, 2012, 8:00am

A few weeks ago the grim, the bad and the paranoid came to the Olympia exhibition centre in West London for the Counter Terror Expo, organised by Clarion Events. Despite being half as full as last year, the grand Victorian hall, carpeted and compartmentalised in order to look as much like a suburban office as possible, was full of companies of various shapes and sizes hoping to hawk their counter-terror wares.

The problem was that, while plenty was on sale, there didn’t seem to be too many people there to buy anything, which meant that the different companies were left to stare blankly at each other from their respective stalls. It was becoming a circle jerk and there I was, in the midst of it all, pretending that a) I could only read the messages on my phone when it was held at eye-level between my face and anything that looked kinda interesting, and b) that I was there on behalf of another employer whose name arouses far less suspicion in the world of counter terror expos than VICE’s does.

The companies exhibiting were looking to protect from terrorism, prevent terrorism or pursue terrorists.

“Protection” means bollards, walls, fences made of invisible microwaves and hi-tech, all-in-one body armour for humans and animals.

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“Prevention” means robots that can be used to find bombs, databases that collect and collate information on terror suspects, software that creates banal mind maps that “link” different suspects to each other and, most worryingly, technology that can extract information from phones and computers (Hello, Syrian government!).

"Pursue" means armoured Land Rovers and Toyotas, newer and deadlier guns, computer simulations that let delegates practice their target shooting and, of course, the provision of trained mercenaries.

Some of the stuff on sale is illegal in the UK. One stand offered the chance to do a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Israeli security sites. For only a suitcase of cash you can visit the various ports, airfields and checkpoints you know so well from all your favourite “Palestinians secretly erased by Mossad” news stories. A week busting heads at an unmarked Ramallah roadblock, you say? Where do I sign up? Weirdly, the woman selling the tour was really friendly, like a blousy aunt who’d tell you how much she loved the TV show Miranda at a family garden party.

Once I’d got in to the exhibition, having passed through one of the many airport-style screening zones that were there not only to make sure I wasn’t loaded with pro-terror gear but also to advertise one of the many companies that makes detectors, I was left with only a Blackberry to photograph what lay before me. I’d been told that no photography was allowed but damn it I was a spy fighting the good journalistic fight, ready to illustrate the truth using only my words, a baffling array of acronyms and a low pixel phone camera.

If you want to practice shooting bad guys, McQueen Targets are the guys for you. They make life-sized models whose terror threat you can learn to annul, and for a little extra cash, you don't have to pretend that you're taking out a guy who just Columbined the fuck out of Goldsmiths' Foreign Languages department.

Choose between Georgi, the deranged Romanian uncle; Lou, who can remind you of the good old days when men were English soldiers and women were Irish terrorists; Raj, the smooth Bollywood gangster and a host of other, more ethnically blank characters the company made to prove they’re not racist.

Try killing this dog now, you terrorist bastards! If you want to scare the wits out of some bad guys with more dirty bombs than a Mexican cowboy the wrong side of a three-day rectal mescaline binge, don’t just turn up with dogs, turn up with armoured dogs. They may not be able to bite anyone because of the new-era micro fibre Velcro harness they're wearing, but it will now take two shots instead of one to bring them down. Also, makes the cutest present for Fido at Christmas! The kids can hunt him with some Soviet-era Kalashnikovs without worrying about him ending up in the pet cemetery. Now someone pass me my Turner and Hooch VHS.

This was the test area or "playpen", where the exhibitors got to show everyone how effective their war machines were. One company had a robot they claimed could go up and down this wall. It couldn’t. I spoke to a robotics company called iRobot (“Robots that make a difference”), who make robots for the US army in Afghanistan and then use that same technology in their vacuum cleaners. Their spokeswoman was keen to remind me that the company existed before the Will Smith film. I smugly reminded her that, while that might be the case, it hadn’t existed before the Isaac Asimov book.

This is a company that makes panic rooms. Yep, like the Jodie Foster film. The cheapest is £10,000 and their most expensive is £160,000. They sell them to footballers and other deranged VIPs. They are trying to get into selling them to large commercial vessels that are at threat from pirates because, after all, if pirates got on board your ship, the best place for you to be would not be barricaded in your control room but rather in a flat-packed panic room you’d ordered from a company in England.

Look how full of terror all these people are. This is how the counter-terror expo sees the world: as a series of red, throbbing threats that need to be neutralised in the name of making a sweet bucks to spend on more toy helicopters with webcams in.

Seriously, you could get it at Argos for 40 quid. This one is made by a military devices company, which sells it for around 15 grand. Governments are blown away by the military-ness of the company and buy the £15,000 toy helicopters, when really they should be doing more to support high street retailers with arcane and illogical queuing systems.

It’s an appropriate metaphor for the conference, which makes a tidy profit for its organisers while doing almost nothing for the exhibitors, who struggle to sell any of their harmful crap. “You probably don’t want to speak to a journalist,” I said to one manufacturer of naval software. “It beats talking to no-one,” he replied. Wow, the world of counter-terror is surprisingly emo. No wonder they're all so scared of the world.

Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow

Wanna learn more about the guys who earn a living making guns? Check this out:

Sofex: The Business of War