Using Video Surveillance to Fight Terrorism

Author: John Honovich, Published on Dec 03, 2008

The Mumbai attacks raise questions about security enhancements. What can CCTV or video surveillance do to address terrorist attacks such as Mumbai? While the immediate reaction is always to spend money on new security systems, what is the best way to invest in security?

Here are the central claims this report examines:

  • Video surveillance can be a key tool in allowing responders to intercept and stop terrorist attacks
  • Video surveillance was not optimally used in Mumbai (from what I have read in the New York Times)
  • Video surveillance (specifically video analytics) will generally be a poor tool at detecting terrorist events because of the nature of terrorist events such as in Mumbai


Video surveillance should be viewed as one element in an overall security plan. At a higher level, there are a number of key factors for ensuring security:

  • Political/Cultural Tension: The more hatred and tension, the more motivated people are to commit terrorist attacks
  • Public Policy/Police: The more powerful the police and the more controlling the laws are, the less likely terrorists will be successful in attacks or choose to attack (deterence)
  • Barriers/Access Control: The more walls and more checkpoints used, the more difficult it is for terrorists to successfully execute.
  • Detection: The more people and systems (burglar alarms, video analytics, etc) used, the more likely and sooner terrorists will be detected and stopped.
  • Response: Better responders and richer information (like real time video surveillance) improves the probability of terrorists being stopped quickly and without losses.

Of these five, only the last two factors can be impacted by video surveillance.

The first two factors (culture and policy) are probably the most important long term factors. These are obviously outside what an individual security manager can do.

The third factor (barriers/access control) are critical and can be impacted by individual organizations and security managers. Indeed, a huge part of the problem in Mumbai was the incredible lack of barriers and access control (contrast this to the Marriott in Pakinstan - where barricades prevented the bombing from having far more deadly of an impact). If you don't stop people or check people as they move throughout a facility, terrorist attacks will cause severe losses - there is basically no way around this.

Video Surveillance to Detect

You can use video surveillance to help detect terrorist activities by (1) having people watch the video in real time or (2) by having computers analyze the video for you and sending alerts (i.e., video analytics).

Watching the video in real time is not feasible for any large facility. Unless you want to employ dozens of people to watch monitors - and the economics probably does not support this.

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You can use video analytics and this will eliminate the problem of having people to watch. However, video analytics (for security) are only feasible today in areas where no person should be standing or moving. If you have other people moving, you are likely to have numerous nuisance alerts (e.g., abandoned object detection sounds good in theory but is generally infeasible to use in production) This is why video analytics are almost always used in conjunction with barriers (like fences) or during times when an area is vacant (like an industrial facility after business hours).

Production video analytics are not sophisticated enough to determine who the terrorist is out of a group of people. Unfortunately, the problem is Mumbai is that, because of the lack of barriers and access control, terrorists can walk right up to victims without any checks or constraints.

While video analytics can solve security problems (such as theft or intrusions), they do not address the core problems in terrorists attacks like that in Mumbai.

Video Surveillance for Response

One of the shocking problems in Mumbai was how long it took to end the attacks and how uninformed it appeared the responders were to the location and activities of the terrorists.

Video surveillance can play a crucial role to help responders quickly and precisely identify terrorists and to marshal responders to the right location and actions. Cameras can be widely distributed and accessed remotely, providing an excellent tool to see where terrorists are and where they are moving. This information can help quickly end attacks.

Unfortunately, in Mumbai, it appears that responders did not have access to those cameras during the fight with the terrorists. The NYTimes claims that the terrorists had much more information on the Taj Hotel and that responders had difficulties determining where to go inside the Hotel.

Access to Surveillance Video

If this is true, this problem must be addressed immediately. It is a very solvable problem to share video and it does not require massive investments nor science fiction technology.

There is a key challenge - no standards between video management systems (and even with IP camera standards in development, this will not resolve the problem with video management systems). These can be overcome, at least temporarily, by using PSIM systems to facilitate cross vendor video surveillance integration.

Thoughts? Disagree?

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