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NYC foiled terror attack highlights importance of video surveillance

Suspect caught on tape

New York City averted yet another possible terrorist attack, but the incident has shed light on the importance of investing in top-of-the-line video surveillance systems for a city that has become terrorism’s number one target destination.

Not long after the area in and around Times Square was evacuated this weekend, due to the threat of a suspected car bomb, police released surveillance camera images of the car itself and a possible suspect, to the press in hope of receiving valuable information from the countless tourists and residents who were strolling the streets of midtown early Saturday evening.

The video revealed an unidentified white male in his 40’s, suspiciously changing in an ally while nervously looking over his shoulder, back at the vehicle. But so far, police have been unable to figure out who the man is -- or if he even had anything to do with the attempted attack.

“When you look at picture quality of pictures they are showing, can you tell who it is?” questions Chris Gettings, president and CEO of videoNEXT of Chantilly, VA. “I don’t think I would recognize my own brother if that was him.”

Despite having secured additional funding last fall to place around midtown Manhattan the so-called “Ring of Steel” -- the system of cameras, license plate readers and chemical sensors that already exists in downtown Manhattan, where the attacks of 9/11 occurred -- experts are still unsure if the system would have been any help in preventing an attack on Times Square, although it might have allowed officers to identify who the purported perpetrator is.

But Gettings sees an even bigger and brighter future for video surveillance tools that will allow officers to react to ongoing threats, rather then just investigate them after they occur.

“I think, in the future, you’ll see more video surveillance in not just a forensics role, but also in a real-time role,” Gettings said in an exclusive conversation with GSN: Government Security News.

“I think the interesting thing that is going on in video surveillance right now is that for the most part, it has only been a forensic tool where people can go and see what happened, but they couldn’t do anything about it in real-time,” he added.

“Most video surveillance systems are only for digging into what happened in the past; it hasn’t been a proactive tool to intercept something before it happens. The future of video analytics technology will allow you to see a rule or law being broken and then be able to catch that person in the action.”

Cost still remains a primary reason why New York City’s surveillance system has not yet caught up with the nature of the threat. But the Saturday night bombing attempt has renewed lawmakers’ calls for increased funding for Manhattan.

“New York City is the number one terror target in the world,” said Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Which is why we always have to keep in mind that New York has to receive the homeland security funding that it needs.”

Democratic Senator Kristen Gillbrand agreed. “This is yet another stark reminder that we must remain vigilant in investing federal homeland security resources to protect New York City,” she said.

In December, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced an increase of six million dollars to the city’s urban security funding. But DHS simultaneously cut more than $50 million in funding for the Transit and Port Security Grant Programs.

“The problem is always money,” said Gettings. “Everyone knows there is great technology that the NYPD can use. But the question is, how can you afford to put the technology everywhere, in a short amount of time. The New York City Police Department is simply stuck with the facts on the ground. They got a lot of the cameras out there that are antiquated and it’s a huge cost to upgrade to something with better picture quality.”

Meanwhile, the NYPD and the FBI are sifting through “hundreds of hours” of security footage from in and around the Times Square area, as well as soliciting help from tourists and local residents who may have captured images of the suspected car-bomber while using hand-held cameras in the vicinity of the crime.