On January 8th of this year, President Obama held a summit with executives from many of the best-known companies in Silicon Valley to discuss the ongoing exploitation of social media by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Among those in attendance were officers of Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Apple. There was a general consensus that, while those companies recognized that the ongoing threat posed by ISIS’ use of social media was real and that some cooperation with the government was necessary, they were also in danger of jeopardizing customer loyalty by appearing “too cozy” with government officials. Apple in particular has taken a more or less hardline position that the security of its customers’ communications trumps all other concerns. It should therefore come as no surprise that Apple subsequently refused to help the FBI hack into the iPhone used by one of the shooters in San Bernardino. Put simply, everybody knew or should have known, that Apple would be of no help in this situation. It is likely, furthermore, that any of the other companies mentioned above would have been similarly reluctant to help past a certain point.
Social media firms and consumer electronics manufacturers can’t be entirely faulted for this attitude; they have public images and bottom lines to maintain, neither of which involves catching terrorists. Instead of relying solely on the help of these entities, the government should be employing the best surveillance technologies available. At the forefront of these is video analytics, which can identify vehicle data, behaviors, faces, and more from video images. At PlateSmart, we have created an intelligent video analytics platform we call ARES. ARES is special because it bases its identifications on one of the most reliable indicators there is—vehicle license plates. This is better known as Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR). You may also know the technology as “license plate readers” or “license plate scanners.” Solutions like ARES allow for a proactive approach that identifies and tracks terrorist perpetrators, helping the FBI and other agencies to stop them before they can act.
Everybody drives; that’s simply a fact. Using PlateSmart’s advanced object recognition engine, which processes all video in full color, ARES is able to identify and track license plate numbers, state jurisdictions and vehicle make, color, and type (e.g., truck vs. SUV, commercial vs. non-commercial). All captures are stored with full-color vehicle images as well as time and date stamps and GPS coordinates, which enable the user to easily discern potential locations of interest. Law enforcement can check this data against criminal databases and/or terrorist watch lists to instantly know who they need to keep a closer eye on. Additionally, ARES can recognize and alert officials in the event of suspicious vehicle movements.
To illustrate the potential, let us consider one of the more heinous terror events in recent memory: The Paris attacks of November 13, 2015. I have written previously about this incident—you can read some of my comments here—but to summarize, one of the key pieces of evidence in identifying the attackers was a car with Belgian plates, rented by an individual with known ISIS associations. At the same time, consider that authorities had been unable to pick up any “chatter” through electronic communication channels that usually precedes an event like this. The reason, they later discovered, was that ISIS had introduced a new level of encryption to their communications that effectively blocked all monitoring by Western powers.
So now imagine that comprehensive ALPR-based video analytics systems had been active in Brussels, where the car was rented, and in Paris. Once the vehicle was rented, it would have been flagged and therefore monitored wherever it went. When it left the city, Belgian authorities would have issued an alert to all law enforcement in the area, including the French. Upon entering Paris, the vehicle would have been picked up and tracked. This data alone would have been enough to justify close monitoring by Parisian police and, very likely, the discovery of the plan before 124 innocent people were executed.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. In the near future, ARES will also be able to recognize faces as well as other data from external databases and associate them with license plates. As more cities invest in citywide surveillance equipped with ARES and more state fusion centers spring up to store and share data, terror suspects will find it harder and harder to move about the country without being detected and tracked. At that point, we will no longer be so dependent on private companies for the evidence we need.
At that point, the possibility of victory over terror becomes achievable. This is a crucial part of PlateSmart’s mission: to stop crime and terrorism wherever we find it and to save lives. Our solutions are already proving themselves in the field. We welcome this challenge and always will.