How the Surveillance Industry Sells Itself

The International Security Conference and Exposition is a rare window into the world of physical surveillance that usually remains hidden in secret command and control centers.

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Dec 9 2014, 5:00am

Photos by the author

From the semi-exclusive Executive Club Lounge at ISC E​ast, which bills itself as the largest security trade show in the northeastern US, the floor of the Javits Convention Center in New York City looks like it would for any other industry expo. Aisles lined with booths distributing branded swag stretch ove​r the size of one and a half football fields. The PA system plays several Billy Joel songs back to back. Thousands of people, mostly men, mill around and catch up on what's gone on in each others' lives since last year's show like kids at summer camp.

Don Erickson, the CEO of the Security Industry Association, the trade group that sponsors the conference, takes the stage minutes before 10 AM. After introducing half a dozen distinguished guests, he raffles off two tickets to a Billy Joel concert at Madison Square Garden, which helps to clarify the DJ's setlist. "Are you ready to get the show started?" Erickson asks the assembled crowd of salespeople, IT experts, private security company executives, and law enforcement officers (including at least two FBI agents), whose response to Erickson's question is muted.

With that, the International Security Conference and Exposition has begun.

Of course, this is not just any other trade show. The two-day extravaganza serves as a rare window into the world of physical surveillance that usually remains hidden behind locked doors in secret command and control centers. It's a world many Americans are unfamiliar with, even if they sense that it lies just behind every security camera, every fingerprint ID scanner, every vaguely understood piece of software that can track an individual across much of the world. Former NSA contractor  ​Edward Snowden showed the world how precarious privacy is in the digital age, a lesson that's impossible not to think about at this convention.

The impressive capabilities of the software and hardware on the convention floor are only underscored by the pedestrian ease with which vendors discuss their products' power. Don Hines, the director of business development at Identytech Solutions, happily tells me about his facial recognition software without a trace of concern the tool could be abused. According to him, Indentytech recently ran a test in a stadium in Argentina filled with 60,000 people, and the system correctly identified 98 out of 100 targeted faces. Display screens in his vendor booth show how even a partial capture—say, of a person's profile—can be turned into a full-on positive ID. "If [a camera] catches a 2-D image, it makes a 3-D image in real time," Hines tells me.

Identytech software also offers a feature their promotional material refers to as "non-voluntary" facial recognition. "I can enroll your face without you ever knowing it," Hines tells me. The example he offers is of a school administrator tagging the face of a possible sexual predator hanging out near a playground without ever having to confront the suspect. Then, whenever the tagged person returns, the administrator gets an alert.

When I ask him how many companies use his product, he laughs knowingly. "It's more widely utilized than you'll ever know," he responds. "Airports—just about everybody uses it. You just don't know it because it's not widely publicized."

A few steps away at the Honeywell kiosk—a major installation—a promotional sign promises that the company's "Total Connect (TM) Tracking Service" is "a great way to keep tabs on family members and employees, know if speed limits or predetermined geographic boundaries have been exceeded, and recover lost or stolen valuables." A sales representative named Tommy tells me that the vehicle tracker, as it's called, is a tiny device that plugs into a car's diagnostic port and alerts a parent or boss in real time if a vehicle's speed exceeds a set limit or departs from a set route. The diagnostic port in cars is under the dashboard, and when I ask if it's possible employees wouldn't see it plugged in, he says yes, it's possible. As I leave he begins to hand me his business card, then, seemingly for the first time, sees the word "press" on my badge. He retracts his card, and says if I have further questions he can connect me through the corporate communications department.

Later in the day I'm drawn to a booth sporting an NYPD streetlight camera, similar to those found in most​ major US cities. The display belongs to a company called SW24, founded 14 years ago by former NYPD narcotics detective Desmond Smyth. The camera is simple to use out of the box—"plug and play," as it's called—and runs for between $8,000 and $20,000. Depending on the price, the camera is capable of running facial recognition technology, abandoned package alerts, and loitering detection, just to name a few options, a sales rep named Gene tells me.

But SW24's real claim to fame is what Smyth describes as the largest cooperative agreement between a private contractor and a city in the nation. Through his company, the NYPD gets access to more than 8,000 cameras mounted outside commercial and residential buildings throughout the five boroughs according to Smyth, all at no cost to the city. It's called the Citywide Safety Initiative, a program that landlords can opt into and that Smyth says turns ordinary security cameras into "an enormous force multiplier." From a "Real Time Crime Center" located in NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza, cops can automatically access the footage of cameras on buildings whose landlords have chosen to participate in the program. "The only access they don't have is random-use access," Smyth tells me. "If there's no investigation, they can't access the cameras."

When I ask if the NYPD need probable cause to trigger access to the footage, Smyth says there's a memorandum of use that lays out the criteria governing the restrictions on cops, and re-emphasizes that investigators can't use it for random surveillance. He says narcotics detectives love the program because it results in a "perfect investigation" and minimizes chain-of-custody issues, among other benefits. 

Though a description of the products and services offered by vendors here sounds like something out of a spy novel, the atmosphere is as much Glengarry Glen Ross as Enemy of the State. Over the two-day expo, attendees can sit in on hour-long panels called "Educational Theater," many of which promise insider tips on getting ahead in business. At one session, billed as offering strategies to ensure your company is around ten years in the future, a panelist tells the several dozen audience members that to survive, "we must all become innovators." Passing one of the booths that houses a security camera distributor, I see a saleswoman chase down a young couple after one of them grabs a brochure and continues on their way. "You can't just take the promo material and keep walking!" she yells good-naturedly—you have to hear the spiel.

The final installment in Wednesday's "Educational Theater" is a seminar on how surveillance cameras help solve on-campus crimes. The two presenters are from George Mason University in Virginia, and lay out investigations aided by cameras that range from a collision in a swimming pool that nearly resulted in a lawsuit to a bomb scare. By next year, the campus will have roughly 1,500 cameras across over 140 buildings, according to Jim McCarthy, director of phy​sical security at GMU. During the course of the presentation he says several times he'd love to have facial recognition technology campus-wide, and has gone so far as to get an estimate for costs. He did the same with automatic license plate readers, another popular tool at the conference. Both, however, simply cost too much money. "If someone wants to give it to me for free, I'd be happy to use it," McCarthy says with a laugh.

There has been some concern on campus about privacy issues, McCarthy concedes, but he largely brushes them off. "When people talk about privacy, I don't care," he tells the audience. "We've saved lives." Beyond obvious advantages like quickly identifying a perpetrator who assaulted a professor in the hallway of an academic building, the cameras have brought other changes McCarthy sees as clear benefits. "It cuts down on vandalism," he says. "We don't have vandalism."

It's not just cameras, either. The campus had been having a problem with students duplicating dining hall entry cards and gaming the system for free meals. GMU has since installed iris scanners at some cafeterias on campus, which the u​niversity's website says will offer students "a hygienic and hands-free entry method."

Campus privacy guidelines forbid monitoring of political or religious activity, and when I ask if a student organization can have a meeting in a place they know they won't be surveilled, McCarthy gives me an unequivocal yes. Virtually none of the classrooms, for instance, have cameras in them. But all building entrances and exits do, as do many hallways. Guidelines aside, it's not hard to imagine investigators could determine who was in attendance at an extracurricular meeting if they needed to.

In response to my question McCarthy waxes philosophical. "We are becoming Big Brother," he says. "Privacy is gone, whether you like it or not." 

Follow John Knefel on ​Twitter.

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