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Off the Grid reality TV depicts real-world surveillance technologies

Off the Grid
operations center
in Los Angeles

For many Americans, the post-9/11 world in which we live can be seen as an amorphous, never-ending struggle between the quest for security and the right to personal privacy. This tug-of-war is played out daily at airport security lines, at lobby reception desks of major office buildings, at ATM machines installed in neighborhood banks, and along downtown streets, where omnipresent security cameras track our every move.

This quiet duel between the “average American,” who often simply wants to be left alone, and technology-driven government authorities whose broader mission is to identify potential security threats and safeguard the public at large, has been distilled into a unique one-hour, non-fiction reality television show, called Off the Grid: Million Dollar Manhunt, which will be broadcast for the first time on December 8, 2011, at 11 PM (Eastern time) by the History Channel cable television network.

In a nutshell, Off the Grid pits two ordinary citizens in their 40’s (Dan, an environmental consultant, and his best friend, Scott, a beer truck driver) who are challenged to make their way out of the center of Los Angeles without being detected and caught by a team of top-notch security professionals, who wield an impressive arsenal of physical security technologies, computer software tools and “boots-on-the-ground” tracking savvy. If Dan and Scott can maintain their personal privacy and elude all attempts to monitor their progress, as they attempt to sneak out of the City of Los Angeles, the show’s producers will hand them a $1 million reward, which they claim is “the largest prize in cable television history.”

“It’s a cat-and-mouse chase,” explained Justin Hochberg, one of the shows two producers, who spoke exclusively with Government Security News on Nov. 29. “It goes back and forth.”

The highly-trained team of professional pursuers is led by host and master tracker, Kevin Reeve, whose company, onPoint Tactical, LLC, offers a scouting, tracking and wilderness survival skills course which has been taken by SEALS, Rangers, FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Marshal Service and other law enforcement agents.

After months of preparation, Off the Grid was shot over the course of six hours, on one day, in which Reeve and his team of tactical, urban survival and military intelligence specialists -- based in an operations center in downtown L.A that was constructed specifically for this project -- pull out all the stops.

They deploy a wide range of physical security technologies to help them locate and keep their eyes on Dan and Scott, as they wend their way through L.A. These include a slew of network cameras and related gear from Axis Communications, a Sweden-based company (whose North American headquarters are in Chelmsford, MA), which has long pioneered the transition from analog to digital video surveillance technology. “We put particular emphasis on providing broadcast quality HDTV network cameras to the security community,” Axis told GSN, “so footage from the cameras themselves could be used in the show.” Axis supplied PTZ dome network cameras, a thermal network camera, network video recorders and video management software.

The Off the Grid pursuit team also used facial recognition technology, limited deployments of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and technology that enabled them to monitor the movements of Dan and Scott by taking advantage of the GPS units embedded in their Blackberry devices, explained the show’s other producer, Charlie Ebersol, during the same conversation with GSN.

All cell phones manufactured in recent years are required to have a geo-locating capability in them, so first responder agencies can quickly pinpoint the location of an incoming 9-1-1 call, Hochberg added. In fact, even after the battery is removed from a Blackberry device, it still emits a weaker (but still sufficient) geo-locating signal, he noted.

Hochberg and Ebersol’s television production company, which fittingly is known as The Hochberg Ebersol Company (or THE Company, for short) has well-developed expertise in “product placements” – they call it “branded entertainment” – in which a manufacturer’s products are used prominently and openly identified during the course of the show. Employing such business techniques, THE Company also included in Off the Grid Pelican waterproof equipment cases, Skype communications technology, Ostendo 180-degree video monitors (which have been used to track the U.S. military’s deployment of Predator drones) and Antares command-and-control technologies.

Off the Grid also depicts the many ways in which Web-based technologies can be used to monitor an individual’s movement by tracking his use of credit cards or bank debit cards. Of course, it is very helpful to identify a pursued individual’s social security number. Hochberg said one of his “favorite tricks” is to use a traffic ticket issued to an individual (which is a public document) and then to search that group of public records to identify key pieces of personal data. “I can use Google to back into your social security number,” he said.

Using proprietary software, he added, the team was also able to insert a Trojan horse onto the phones carried by Dan and Scott.

Neither Hochberg nor Ebersol were willing to reveal to Government Security News whether Dan and Scott managed to elude their pursuers, “escape” from Los Angeles, and win the million dollar prize. Readers of this article, and viewers nationwide, are invited to watch the debut broadcast on December 8 to find out for themselves, said the producers.

They did acknowledge that the magnitude of the potential prize went a long way in concentrating their minds. “With a million dollars on the line,” said Hochberg, “we paid very close attention to every detail of the program.”

This certainly wasn’t the producers’ first foray into high-visibility TV programming. Ebersol served as co-creator and executive producer of an earlier terrorist-tracking reality news program called “The Wanted,” which was broadcast by NBC. That show, which attempted to track down and capture real-world terrorists, in conjunction with official government agencies, drew upon the expertise of several foreign intelligence services, said Ebersol, and developed cutting-edge shooting techniques which employed Panasonic and Sony broadcast cameras to shoot in High Definition, even when lighting conditions were extremely challenging.

Hochberg served as a producer of the hit show, “The Apprentice,” for three seasons and helped to develop “The Contender,” a boxing reality show, “which was sold for the highest price of any unscripted program to date,” says a news release issued by THE Company on Nov. 16.

Even with their strong backgrounds, Hochberg and Ebersol encountered obstacles in shooting Off the Grid that they couldn’t overcome. They had access to some world-class technologies that they would have loved to include in the program, but were prevented from doing so in some circumstances. For example, U.S. laws prevented them from flying UAVs over a U.S. city, and other restrictions prevented them from showing off state-of-the-art “heartbeat recognition” technologies in their 60-minute program.

As the cat-and-mouse duel unfolded, recalled Hochberg, Dan and Scott came to recognize first-hand the ongoing battle between privacy and security. “They got a clear picture of just how exposed they were,” said Hochberg.

Even so, the two producers – who would like to produce additional episodes of Off the Grid in other large cities in the future – say they took pains to take no overt position on the philosophical question of privacy versus security. To see the trailer for the debut program, click here.

“We shine a light on these different worlds,” Hochberg told GSN, "but we remain non-opinionated. We’re simply showing the world we live in.”


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