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.
There is even technology, he added, "that can distinguish the sound of a flat tire from an explosion. That is truly cutting edge."
Some of the more sophisticated tools were supplied by Autonomy Corp., a London firm that also services the U.S. National Security Agency.
Portions of words uttered over the Olympic video and radio networks will be transcribed into text, so Autonomy's software can analyze it for hints of suspicious chatter.
Officials running the master command system said there won't be real-time computer analysis of video, but they declined to discuss what screening might take place on the video after it has been fed into the control rooms. The surveillance video has provoked howls of protest from privacy watchdogs, who consider it too intrusive.
"Video is digitized and can be stored for up to a week, so events can be reconstructed if necessary," said John Gauss, senior vice president of Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), the San Diego defense contractor that won the lead contract to create the electronic network for the Summer Olympics.
Testing of the security network, comprising 29 subsystems that SAIC tied together electronically, was delayed until the last minute due to construction delays in the main stadium and elsewhere.
"It wasn't just the main stadium that was late," Gauss said. "When you go to put up cameras, it doesn't do your cameras good to have . . . bulldozers racing past the pole you have just installed." But Gauss, who returned from Athens on Sunday, said the entire system was up and running this week.
Such a system doesn't come cheap. For the surveillance and communication network alone, Athens organizers are paying $312 million over 10 years to the consortium led by SAIC. All told, Greek officials estimated their security spending will approach $1.5 billion -- a whopping $90 million a day for each of the 17 game days.
The price of safety obviously has skyrocketed worldwide in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Indeed, much of the technology being used to lock down Athens has already been deployed in the United States, including some in the Washington region.
One example is crisis-management software from a Los Angeles company, E Team, which is being used heavily in Athens and also here in Washington. E Team's software allows thousands of people to view the same data and communicate with one another from scores of different control rooms. Its core tool is a Web browser, but it also includes other Internet-based features customized for monitoring emergencies.
Then there is Smiths Detection, a London company that is supplying hundreds of hand-held chemical detectors, explosive-sniffers and X-ray scanners to the Olympics. In addition to its small detectors, Smiths is sending super-sized scanners to Athens that will be used to X-ray shipping containers entering seaports.
Smiths operates at the frontier of what is evolving into a substantial industry -- anti-terrorist detection gear. The company supplies all sorts of systems for detecting anthrax and other harmful agents to U.S. military and federal agencies, including one that senses when hazardous substances are injected into a building's air-conditioning system. That system has been deployed recently in government buildings in and around Washington, said Bill Mawer, the company's North American president.
Without a doubt, it is unnerving to consider the electronic shield that has been fabricated to guard against terrorism in Athens. Even though experts may consider it a gigantic waste of money -- many of today's tools, after all, were designed to guard against yesterday's attacks -- you can bet that these invisible shields will continue to grow bigger and more powerful, insinuating themselves ever more deeply into our lives.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is email@example.com.