If only security at the Summer Olympics were as easy as it is on TV.
We've all seen crime shows featuring computerized catch-a-crook systems. You know, where a blurry photo from a surveillance camera is fed into a computer, which scans millions of mug shots and -- presto! -- matches it with a convicted felon.
The reality is that computers still can't analyze faces well enough to tell Danny DeVito from Danny the Dirtbag. In fact, every time I visit a high-tech research lab, I ask when they are going to catch up with face recognition on TV. The answer is always, "Soon."
So I've been skeptical about the huge electronic security system that a consortium of high-tech companies stitched together to manage surveillance and communications for the Olympic Games, which open in Athens tomorrow. It relies on a high-power, secure data network and taps super-secret software tools that no one seems willing to discuss publicly.
I am intrigued by the sheer number of moving parts in this electronic shield around Athens, including a "mobile defender" system of tiny sensors hidden inside black briefcases with battery-operated radios. The 10-pound cases are designed to detect radiological or nuclear "dirty" bombs, then beam wireless alerts that will show up in a software program running on a laptop computer nearby. The mobile defender was developed by San Diego startup Soflinx Corp. with funding from In-Q-Tel, a venture capital outfit created by the CIA.
"It's very Rumsfeldian," said Neil Senturia, chief executive of Soflinx, referring to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's fondness for portable, flexible systems. "You can set it up in an hour and you can pick up and go from event to event."
The suitcases are mere specks in the vast electronic universe that is the surveillance network in Athens. According to those involved, there are 1,599 video cameras fastened to poles along city streets and at scores of sports facilities. The main stadium alone has 80 surveillance cameras feeding live footage into a closed-circuit TV network to be monitored at a regional command center, where selected video footage will be screened and fed over a private, fiber-optic line using Internet technologies to one of 11 main Olympic control centers.
Other video cameras are stationed aboard Coast Guard patrol boats; along the port of Piraeus, where cruise ships will house thousands of distinguished guests; aboard helicopters; and even on a 400-foot blimp floating 4,000 feet above the games.
There are also motion detectors parked along barbed-wire fences and sonar devices listening underwater to catch swimmers trying to sneak into harbors. A custom digital radio system was created to offer push-to-talk capability to 12,000 handheld radios and another 10,000 in official vehicles. Some 4,000 vehicles are equipped with global-positioning receivers that can feed their whereabouts over the radio network to the command posts, allowing organizers to monitor vehicle movements on electronic maps.
"The security system absolutely is state of the art," said Robert Sikellis, managing director of Vance International/Decision Strategies LLC, in a phone interview on Tuesday from Athens, where he has been advising the Olympic organizing committee and corporate sponsors on security.