Selling Safety: Security Companies React to a Post-Boston Landscape
BY Jeremy Quittner
From widespread cameras to enhanced reality, the Boston bombings may herald a new era for the security industry
The Boston Marathon bombings are scarcely a week behind us, but security companies are already conceiving a new generation of products and services to counter an evolving terrorism landscape.
Until now, the big corporate malfeasance scandals of the early 2000s and the September 11 terrorist attacks were the seminal events that shaped how security companies developed their products: Those two events launched systems of audit and regulation that had never before existed. Since the Boston bombings, these companies sense the landscape may be shifting, triggering changes in a scope of products and services that ranges from feet-on-the-street to IT surveillance to space age technology that can help secure cities and town from the air.
One of these companies, Mav6, sounds like it hails from the world of British crime and police TV thrillers. But the company, which ranks 230th on the Inc. 500 list for 2012, sees the security technology it produces as one way to help secure big cities.
Today, the company's major customer is the military. But that may change. Mav6's camera-based system, which collects a staggering 2 terabytes of visual data every hour, is capable of analyzing block-by-block activity in areas as large as 10 square kilometers. Think of it as Google Earth, but using images in real time.
In the future, when a large public event is about to take place, Mav6's technology could be deployed in a weather balloon, dirigible or some other unmanned aerial device, to track activity throughout the city, allowing authorities to observe and potentially apprehend suspects more quickly in the event of terrorism.
"The technology we are developing was created to mitigate things like we've seen in Boston--it is easy for us to draw these parallels," says Jay Harrison, founder and managing director of Mav6 in Arlington, Virginia.
Such systems, often used by the military to get a fix on activity before improvised explosive device detonations in Afghanistan and Iraq, are usually costly to deploy because they involve launching a large aircraft mounted with wide area motion camera sensors. That can run into the millions of dollars, Harrison says. But Mav6 says it can launch a scaled down version for U.S. municipalities for between $150,000 and $250,000.
The first test launch will be before the end of the year with the U.S. military, Harrison says.
Mav6 is one of about 2,000 private companies that have cropped up or transformed themselves since September 11, 2001, working primarily with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and specializing in counterterrorism, security and intelligence gathering, according to a special report by The Washington Post. Many operate with little or no oversight, and are controversial because they may handle extremely sensitive personal data.
For its part, Mav6 got its start seven years ago. Harrison had been a civilian senior executive at the Department of Defense, as well as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer. In Harrison's last job at the DOD, he oversaw the use of commercial technology to help support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harrison decided to begin his own company, focused on bringing private innovation to the military. The company has since evolved into creating civilian uses of the technology as well.
Since September 11, old-line security companies have changed their core businesses 180 degrees, says Anthony Roman, founder and chief executive of Roman & Associates, a Lynbrook, New York security company with 120 employees. "There's been an explosion since 9-11 in the number and type and sophistication of security companies and consulting firms," he says.
Roman's company, for instance, was founded in 1982 primarily to investigate insurance losses and fraud in the financial services industry. Since September 11, his clientele have been forced to provide for business continuity in emergency situations, as well as to secure data, intellectual assets, and physical locations. It now provides those services, and others, including risk management and assessment, insurance, and risk mediation across industries.
Similarly, six-person Murray Associates, in Oldwick, New York, was founded in 1978. At that point, C-level executives did not take corporate security very seriously, and they saw budgeting for security as an expense and a bother. That all changed after September 11 as well, says Kevin D. Murray, the company's founder.
Today, the company focuses on corporate espionage, with 60 percent of its work is in either Boston or Washington. (Following the marathon bombings, Murray says he called a large insurance company he works with near Boylston street first of all to see that everything was alright, and secondly to offer disaster recovery services if it needed them.)
Crowds to Enhanced Reality: The Future of Safety
Indeed, following terrorist events, there is generally an 18-month window during which companies and people are hyper-aware of security concerns that could affect them, says G. Mark Hardy, founder and president of National Security Corporation in Largo, Florida. After that, people and companies tend to return to pre-terrorist event levels of awareness.
Currently, there could be a big opportunity for an enterprising small business to use crowdsourcing and big data analysis to solve security dilemmas, Hardy says. Given the number of civilians who used smartphones to capture pictures and video of the Boston bombing and its aftermath, for example, Hardy believes a company could design an application that alerts users to suspicious activity in particular city areas.
"If eight to 12 people within a one-to-two-minute period says something weird is going on, it can trigger a response and law enforcement can look at this," Hardy says.
And creating security technology can push small businesses to innovate in other ways. Mav6 plans to use its security technology to create a whole new level of geospatial media, including enhanced reality. Harrison says his goal is to get his technology into low flying satellites that orbit the earth, allowing it to function in real time, for example within Google Glass, or to create 3-dimensional interactive maps using real time data.
"The issue is how you make this available to various classes of mobile device users on the ground," Harrison says.