Big Brother Goes To The Olympics

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If you're going to the Olympics, you'd better be careful what you say and do in public.

Software will be watching and listening.

Recent leaps in technology have paired highly sophisticated software with street surveillance cameras to create digital security guards with intelligence-gathering skills.

"It is a very vast network and it is the first time it is being done on such a scale at an international level," said Greek police spokesman Col. Lefteris Ikonomou.

The system — developed by a consortium led by San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC — cost about $312 million and took up a sizable chunk of Athens' record security budget of more than $1.5 billion.

It gathers images and audio from an electronic web of over 1,000 high-resolution and infrared cameras, 12 patrol boats, 4,000 vehicles, nine helicopters, a sensor-laden blimp and four mobile command centers.

Spoken words collected by the cameras with speech-recognition software are transcribed into text that is then searched for patterns along with other electronic communications entering and leaving the area — including e-mail and image files.

The system, which includes components already used by U.S. and British government intelligence agencies, covers all of greater Athens, nine ports, airports and all other Olympic cities.

Ikonomou said it "allows the users to manage a critical incident in the best way possible and in the shortest time possible because they have all the information in front of them."

The software used for surveillance camera recordings is designed to spot and rank possible risks, said Dionysios Dendrinos, general manager of One Siemens in Greece, one of the companies in the consortium.

"They can distinguish the sound of a flat tire from an explosion or a gunshot and inform the user at the command center of the incident," he said. "This is also the case with any anomaly in the picture, such as a traffic jam."

Technology also allows the users of the system at the main command center to save and analyze data from the surveillance network and beyond. And the material from the closed circuit cameras is kept for seven days, Ikonomou said, so specific incidents can be analyzed in depth.

Much of that analysis is enabled by software from London-based Autonomy Corp., whose clients include the U.S. National Security Agency, that parses words and phrases collected by surveillance cameras and in communications traffic.

In June, the Greek government expanded surveillance powers to screen mobile and fixed-line telephone calls during the Olympics.

"It listens, reads and watches," Dominic Johnson, Autonomy's chief marketing officer, said of his company's software. Then it synthesizes. Beyond Greek and English the software understands Arabic, Farsi and all major European languages, Johnson said.

Other companies in the SAIC consortium include Germany's Siemens AG; General Dynamics Corp. and Honeywell International Inc. of the United States; and the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Several Greek companies also are participating.

According to the contract, the system was to be delivered by May 28, but due to construction delays at some Olympic venues — such as the main Olympic stadium — it was delivered just weeks before the opening ceremony.

Nevertheless, Public Order Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis declared last week that all the security systems were in full deployment and working smoothly.

There'll be other sniffing going on, of course.

A network of sensors designed to detect chemical agents has also been deployed near Olympic venues and around the capital, including on the security blimp.

Advanced technology is also used in the creation of the Olympic credentials, which use such security features as holograms. All cardholder information, such as a person's photo and passport number, are printed on a very thin film designed to make the cards impossible to forge.

The digitally enhanced surveillance net may provide comfort to Olympics attendees, but not everyone is happy at authorities' computer-aided eyes and ears.

Several groups have held protests in recent months against what they say is an invasion of their privacy, and some demonstrators have spray-painted street cameras, seeking to blind them.

"The Olympic Games are accompanied with extended security measures that are unprecedented for Greece," six human rights groups said in a protest letter to Greek Parliament in July. "Although the state's right to take all necessary measures that it deems necessary is recognized, there is fear that these measures will have a negative impact on basic human rights."

  • Dan Collins

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