London transit disasters mandate tech ticket to ride: video surveillance and face recognition
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Jul 07, 2006
A year after the London terrorist bombings of July 7 and 21, 2005, the lessons learned have not all followed a straight track to implementation.
Federal funding for mass transit security in the United States did not surge after the attacks, as Democrats urged it should. Nor is there a new, comprehensive U.S. national strategy for securing subway and train systems.
U.S. subways and commuter train authorities deployed additional police officers immediately ? if temporarily ? after the attacks, and attention has turned to using technology for helping to deter and respond to terrorism.
In those contexts, London has lessons to teach. Because the attacks occurred in a subway system recognized worldwide for its extensive video network, the London events have brought much greater attention to the benefits of video surveillance, integrated video and communications, video analytics and intelligent video for both prevention and investigation after the fact, industry officials and policy experts said.
"Video is becoming more potent as a security weapon," said Joseph Freeman, a video surveillance industry consultant in Newtown, Conn. "It is the only technology that provides you with visual evidence, and that is desperately needed now."
Mass transit authorities, while being influenced by London's use of cameras, also are heeding the combination of factors that made the subway bombings there so harrowing and difficult to prevent:»
"Home-grown" terrorists are impossible to identify from a global watch list.»
Rushed and crowded trains and buses are vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.»
Split-second timing exacerbated the damage done.
"There were strong lessons from London," Freeman said. "If you are a city manager here, you might look at London as a precursor of things to come."
What potentially could be the most influential lesson learned from the London event and aftermath is just beginning to emerge: the use of video facial recognition to help identify terrorists and prevent attacks.
The London-based Police Information Technology Organisation, an influential group that advises on technology, last month said that it soon will introduce a plan for a national U.K. video identification program that will use facial recognition.Grim anniversary
The suicide bombers struck during the morning rush hour July 7, 2005. Three bombs exploded nearly simultaneously on trains, and minutes later, a fourth detonated on a bus. Fifty-two people died, and 700 were injured in the disaster.
On July 21, police revealed that four additional terrorist bombers had tried to detonate bombs on the subway. The devices failed to explode, but service was disrupted for several hours. Videos of the suspects were released, and, following a huge manhunt, four men were taken into custody.
Members of Congress quickly sought to increase mass transit security funding in the United States, and talked of a seven-fold hike to $1 billion a year from $150 million. But support ebbed as new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff a month later introduced his "Second Stage Review," which focused primarily on securing the country's borders rather than its buses and trains.
Chertoff dismissed rail and transit security as a national priority, telling reporters that a subway bomb may kill 30, but a weapon of mass destruction may kill 3,000. New York Democrats sharply criticized Chertoff for those remarks, yet federal mass transit funding remains unchanged.
DHS continues "to focus almost exclusively on aviation security, spending, on average, $9 per air passenger as compared to one penny per rail or mass transit security passenger," Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee wrote in a June report on lessons learned from London.
Last month, the London Assembly's after-action report of the July 7 attacks highlighted major shortcomings in radio communications and over-reliance on mobile phones. Transport authorities there have pledged an $3.6 billion upgrade over 20 years.
That report received little attention in the United States, perhaps because emergency communications have been a top priority here since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
In addition to the London bombings, other mass transit attacks ? Tokyo sarin deaths in 1995, Madrid train bombings of 2004 and recent news of an aborted Al Qaeda plot in 2003 to put deadly cyanide in New York's subways ? have had an impact on perceptions of mass transit safety.
Many cities over the past 10 years have tested and deployed closed-circuit television systems, bomb-sniffing dog teams, explosive detection devices, digital communications systems, and biological and chemical sensors. But the area of greatest activity is probably in video surveillance.Electronic eyes
In response to Irish Republican Army terrorist attacks in the early 1990s, London authorities created the "Ring of Steel." The "Ring" encircled the city center and included physical barriers to limit street access and extensive video camera surveillance.
Since then, London and more than 400 other British cities have installed surveillance cameras in public spaces, including close to 2,000 cameras in London subways.
The cameras did not prevent the July 2005 incidents, and authorities have said that before an attack occurs, it is nearly impossible to identify terrorists who are legal residents and have no record of international criminal activity.
After the attack, however, the videos were crucial investigative tools in the capture of the suspects of the July 21 attacks.
"As London demonstrated, cameras can be extremely useful," the Democratic report said.
Use of public video surveillance, which has been proliferating globally for the last decade, most likely has been spurred further by the London events. Overall, the video surveillance industry is expected to grow to nearly $14 billion by 2010, from about $7.8 billion in 2006, Freeman said.
Many of London's cameras are older analog technology, but most of the growth is in digital cameras integrated into networks, he said.
Smart video can help in preventing attacks and in providing early warning. Video analytics, also called intelligent video software, also are a huge new development, Freeman said. Intelligent video can help to identify unusual situations and threats, such as a passenger leaving an item unattended or someone entering a restricted area.
Many mass transit systems, including, most notably, New York, are applying video technology. The city's Metropolitan Transit Authority intends to add 1,000 surveillance cameras, as well as sensors, intelligent video and integration of video with command and control functions, as part of the $212 million contract with Lockheed Martin.
New York's system includes "technology, people and processes" and uses a comprehensive approach, said Judy Marks, director of transportation and security for Lockheed Martin. Other city transit systems are buying video systems, but not necessarily in such an integrated fashion, she said.
"We are seeing interest in video, and the demand for that picking up," Marks said in an interview. "But no one else is using a holistic approach like New York City's."
"What you see is a pattern of experimentation," Freeman said. "London is not New York or Chicago. The cities want to see how these things work."
Nonetheless, there has been heightened interest in video, said Mariann McDonagh, director of marketing for Verint Systems Inc., Melville, N.Y., whose video surveillance software is now deployed in 25 mass transit systems including those of Montreal and Valencia, Spain.
Mass transit authorities want proactive video solutions. By using analytics, such solutions can give early warnings of incidents and attacks, McDonagh said.
Mass transit officials also want intelligence immediately following an incident to be distributed to emergency responders, and they want post-event investigative tools to be used to determine responsibility and for future prevention efforts, McDonagh said. Prevention, response and investigation are the "three main drivers, and they all go hand in hand," she said.
Interoperability can be problematic, as most new video systems must be layered over legacy systems and technologies. Most of London's cameras, for example, use old analog technology.
"London has an older legacy system," Freeman said. "We have a better opportunity to go to IP cameras more quickly here in the United States."Image caught
Probably the greatest potential impact of the London events may be the increased interest in using software for facial recognition as part of video surveillance. The Police IT Organisation recommends implementing a national, video-based facial recognition program. Although neither London nor any mass transit system in the United States is using the technology regularly, it is expected to expand soon.
"Facial recognition systems are highly desirable," Freeman said. Despite their relatively high error rates, the systems are gaining popularity as a result of high anxiety about terrorism attacks, he said.
Facial recognition software has advanced and is effective, industry executives said, but only with good lighting and straight-on facial images. High-quality images yield a high success rate when matched against high-quality images in a database. This typically works best with 1:1 matching, such as verifying employees' photos when they enter a building.
The application with the greatest counter-terrorism potential, however, is in capturing images in a crowd to be screened for matches with a terrorist watch list. In such cases, possible poor quality images on both ends can affect reliability.
Tampa, Fla., ended its recent experiment with such technology because of its high error rate.
New improvements have made such systems better at recognizing faces, enhancing the images and matching them with a database, and the newer systems are particularly good for fast-moving environments such as at train stations, said Michael Oehler, a vice president of biometric solutions and facial recognition software maker CrossMatch Technologies Inc. of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
"We think facial recognition software is perfectly applicable to mass transit," Oehler said.
The Police IT group proposal is an "exciting use" of the technology, said Jim Miller, chairman of San Diego-based ImageWare Systems Inc., which makes biometric software compatible with facial recognition. "It has to be set up so you can get good images. The science has come a long way in five years."
The lessons of London showed that video surveillance cameras cannot always stop a terrorist, but it can help identify and capture terrorist suspects quickly after an attack. As terrorism continues, video will be called upon to do more and more.
"The news from London and from the Middle East has made everyone more anxious," Freeman said. "We have to provide more security.
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at email@example.com.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.