When I descended down the escalator at Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Center, I felt like I had entered a low-budget promotional video for SkyNet. Over 75 exhibits scattered across this floor, displaying cameras, drones, cameras, drones, and, of course, DATA. "The greatest risks never use the front door," a stand sign declared. "EVOLVE2ADVANCE," another advised, or warned.
I was in the belly of the 25th Annual ASIS NYC Security Conference and Expo, a peek into the near-future of surveillance aided by the people who were really amped about it. A salesman for SafeRise and I played with Minority Report–like cameras that scan your face and can detect if you're "unauthorized." A few young guys from a company called Total Recall Corporation told me their big-box cameras are scattered across Times Square. This was the sort of place where naming your company after a dystopic sci-fi film appeared to be a selling point.
Earlier, I had slipped into one of the first educational sessions of the morning. The first thing I noticed when I peered around this tiny conference room was how many older white dudes there were. Dudes is really the only word for them—thick-necked, tough-looking guys who would be comfortable wearing sports sunglasses backwards on their heads and who project a vaguely ex-cop aura of potential violence. The sort of person who would sit in a room inside a conference center at 8 AM to learn about counterterrorism, in other words.
The presenter was Naureen N. Kabir, a senior intelligence research specialist at the NYPD's Counterterrorism Bureau and one of the few women here, who was in front of these dudes to detail how the largest counterterrorism program of any municipal city police department in the US tries to stop threats against New York City.
She ran through a PowerPoint of foreign terrorist groups (al Shabaab, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, etc.), instances of "lone wolf" attacks, and the possibility of Islamic State fighters returning home, which, she said, could happen anytime. "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance," the moderator told us later on. A man sitting next to me shook his head as we flipped through slides showing off pages from Inspire, the al Qaeda magazine.
"I cannot understand why drones can fly over this damn city!" one male attendee yelled out during a Q&A session after. "It's mayhem!" (This was not a question, exactly.)
In agreement, Kabir replied that the NYPD was hard at work. A maritime unit was being built to surveil the skies for drones, and the department constantly analyzed open-source data and past events to find out how to best combat these perhaps existential threats to our livelihood. "We cannot think that something similar couldn't happen here," she said. "Like Mumbai, where packs of gunmen start shooting up different parts of the city."
Related: Watch our documentary on Israel's drone program
The list of ways the government is aggressively keeping New York safe was a long one. One city program, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, had 7,000 cameras set up across Downtown, Kabir said, along with an array of environmental sensors. Another slide showed off the Hercules team, which is composed of militarized cops fitted with M16s, who patrol places like Penn Station. The Joint Terrorism Task Force connected the NYPD with the FBI, and was responsible, she said, for the arrests this past month of the two women in Queens who were bent on building a bomb. When I asked Kabir if the NYPD was still spying on Muslims, though, I got no definitive answer, and a room full of strange looks.
The seminars continued throughout the day; the next one I attended was titled "Crisis Around the Corner" and touched on hacking, piracy (the high-seas kind), and fires, among other topics. "We are in trouble, people," a director of corporate security declared to the crowd. That was the theme of the two-day conference: The world is unsafe, bad guys are everywhere, and we're a few wrong turns away from one of many varieties of utter devastation.
I left dazed and confused, not sure what to make of the current state of affairs. But noontime was fast approaching, which meant so was the event of the day, when NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton would be awarded the ASIS Person of the Year Award. Bratton has run the police departments in Los Angeles and New York and overseen drops in crime rates in both cities; in a conference like this he's a kind of minor deity who tirelessly works to make the world a safer place—there's no room here for the criticisms that his aggressive policies unfairly target minorities or might even be unconstitutional.
The program quoted a SF Weekly article my friend Albert Samaha did on Bratton in 2013: "He became NYC's police chief in 1994, applied Broken Windows, and the city experienced a historic drop in crime rates. Then he went to LA and brought the same results." But, Samaha told me, they left out the line that followed: "But there is more to the crime drop that doesn't get mentioned in the narrative. Yes, crime rates in NYC and LA dropped significantly under Bratton's watch. What gets less play, though, is a simple truth: Between 1991 and 2013, America experienced a drastic, coast-to-coast decline in crime."
The award ceremony was held in an enormous hall decked out with tables; every attendee got a caesar salad, a piece of bread, and a slice of chocolate cake. I found a seat in the way back at an empty table that soon filled up with three slick-looking businessmen types and a handful of bigger dudes wearing earpieces.
Before Bratton's appearance, we were treated through a brief, triumphant history of ASIS by the guys who ran it. "We started off with just five exhibits on a floor of the Penta Hotel,"one said. But look at them now—cops and consultants everywhere, an entire international community of security professionals gathered under one roof.
Looking back, the past two and a half decades have been one long boom for this industry—first the war on drugs, then the war on terror, now an increasing focus on cybersecurity. It's been a very, very good time to be in the business of telling people they need increasingly complex systems in order to remain safe, because people have never had more things to be afraid of.
Bratton's acceptance speech was terse—although, for what it's worth, he does give great speeches—and he spent a good bit of it discussing the by-now-old-hat story of how he cleaned up New York using his now-notorious "broken windows" style of policing, in which lower-level offenses are heavily prosecuted as a means of deterring more serious crimes.
"Even here, the Javitz Center," he said. "Twenty-five years ago, you'd have to fight to get out of here, and fight to get in." Everyone laughed, and cheered.
The last seminar of the day I attended was called "Managing Social Unrest" and basically dissected what cops should do when confronted by unruly demonstrators. The panelists, from Philadelphia, seemed surprisingly committed to a kinder, gentler way of managing protest movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter. "Our goal is zero arrests," Stacy Irving, a former director of Crime Prevention Services for Philly's Center City, said. "That's where we start from."
Throughout the day, I was looking for the common man—a non-dude, someone not professionally tied to the security scene—to get a quote from a citizen who could serve as an unbiased observer. No dice. Everyone was representing one sci-fi-sounding corporation or another.
In the course of doing this, I ran into a French-Canadian named Annick Tramblay who worked at a Belgian company named GSK as their crisis and continuity management director. She had flown here from Europe for the week to see what the conference had to offer, especially when it came to safeguarding against active shooter drills. When I asked her why she had come all this way though, her reply was simple and obvious:
"The market is here," she said. "America does this best."
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