NYC's Plan To Track Everything That Moves

According to a report earlier this week in the New York Times, the project -- called Operation Sentinel -- will help protect lower Manhattan by capturing vehicle license plate numbers with photo and video cameras mounted on all city bridges and tunnels. The system will also include radiation detectors aimed at preventing terrorists from being able to sneak nuclear materials -- or a radiological 'dirty bomb' -- into the city.

"Our main objective would be to, through intelligence, find out about a plot before it ever got to a stage where a nuclear device or a dirty bomb was coming our way," Paul J. Brown, New York City Police Department spokesperson, told the New York Times. "This provides for our defense after a plot has already been launched and a device is on its way."

Operation Sentinel combines multiple security technologies into an integrated, IT-style anti-terrorism 'solution' that gathers data and feeds it back into a centralized command center for analysis. But while the solutions-oriented approach has been effective for businesses, some security experts believe that Operation Sentinel is as much about psychology as it is about technology.

Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer of British Telecom, sees Operation Sentinel as an example of what he calls 'security theater', a term of his own creation that refers to measures authorities put in place to make the public feel safer, even though they don't really boost security.

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"Someone has thought up a movie plot in their head of bad guys driving trucks into New York City," Schneier said. "While I'm sure there are some scenarios in which this makes sense, spending for security based on movie plots is only effective if you guess the plot correctly."

Steve Hunt, principal at Hunt Business Intelligence, an Evanston, Ill.-based security research firm, said video cameras themselves are powerful deterrents, even when they're not turned on. "The presence of a video camera, even if it's a fake one, is very often enough to change peoples' behavior," Hunt said.

That's not to say that technology won't be critical to the success of Operation Sentinel. Steady advancements in video capture technology have made license plate scanning possible, but camera placement must be perfect, and the task of analyzing images is fraught with challenges, according to security experts.

One potential stumbling block has to do with transmission of video from cameras to the command center. "The underlying network infrastructure will be susceptible to the same hiccups and shortcomings of any networking and storage architecture," said Hunt. "The quality of license plate images is so easily degraded that complete accuracy is unlikely."

Operation Sentinel is similar to 'London's Ring Of Steel' security monitoring system, which was implemented in the early 1990s in response to a rash of IRA bombings, and uses curved roads to guide cars past closed circuit television checkpoints for monitoring purposes.

But because European license plates are standardized in terms of width, height, and font, they're much easier to scan than U.S. plates, says Willem Ryan, product marketing manager at Vancouver-based surveillance systems vendor Extreme CCTV, a member of the Bosch Group.

"In North America, license plate fonts and colors vary from state to state, and writing software that capable of accounting for these differences is very difficult. The challenge is developing a powerful algorithm to account for the massive variety of plates," said Ryan.

However, the technical challenges of Operation Sentinel pale in comparison to those of digging through the mountains of data that surveillance systems generate on a daily basis to find actual terrorists, according to Ken Phelan, CTO of Gotham Technology Partners, a solution provider based in Montvale, N.J.

"I think the real issue with incident response is how much data you have to go through to find something interesting. That analysis is going to be the key challenge," said Phelan.