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Amtrak lags in implementing security technologies

(The following story by Dan Verton appeared on the ComputerWorld website on March 19.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the aftermath of the March 11 terrorist attacks that killed 201 train passengers in Madrid, some U.S. lawmakers and IT professionals are raising questions about the lack of security systems in place throughout the U.S. commuter rail system, particularly the federally subsidized Amtrak network.

In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge on March 12, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) demanded an explanation for the imbalance between the billions of dollars in Department of Homeland Security funding earmarked for new security technologies at air and sea ports and the meager $115 million made available to protect railroads.

"We have continued to shortchange security for our nation's rail system," Snowe and Castle wrote in their letter. "More must be done to introduce improved security procedures and technologies to our rail system so we can be better protected."

A DHS spokesman said rail system security is primarily the responsibility of Amtrak and state and local authorities. The spokesman also acknowledged that Amtrak passengers aren't screened against any DHS terrorist watch-list database.

Amtrak declined to comment on what, if any, security measures beyond bomb-sniffing dogs have been deployed to protect the rail system.

But technology and security analysts said IT-based systems available today could substantially improve Amtrak's security in the near term without having a negative impact on passenger movement and convenience.

For example, a $4,000-per-camera license from Reston, Va.-based ObjectVideo can provide security managers with software that lets them set rules for detecting suspicious behavior using existing security cameras. The company just last month signed a distributor agreement with Madrid-based IT Deusto, and the Madrid metro system is now planning a pilot project using the software. Since the attacks there, a demonstration of the technology during a U.S. embassy-sponsored technology expo scheduled for next month in Madrid has been sold out, according to ObjectVideo CEO Raul Fernandez.

"The problem with large closed-circuit television infrastructures is there are a lot of cameras, but nobody's watching them," said Fernandez. "That's where technology comes in." Had ObjectVideo's software been deployed in Madrid, it would likely have been able to detect the bombers leaving backpacks behind and would have automatically dispatched security personnel to investigate, he said.

For remote areas of the U.S. rail system, Axis Communications Inc., a Lund, Sweden-based surveillance firm, has developed a "network camera" system that can be operated over a company's existing IT infrastructure or the excess fiber-optic cable that typically runs alongside U.S. railroad corridors.

Fredrik Nilsson, CEO of Axis, agreed that most security cameras aren't monitored. "You need to have enough intelligence built in so that the cameras that are being watched are the ones monitoring areas where something is happening," he said.

The company has integrated video motion-detection technology into each network camera and can combine time-stamped recordings with physical security events to give security managers "context," said Nilsson. Alerts can then be sent in the form of text messages to cell phones or e-mails with images attached.

"But kids spray-paint and disable security cameras all the time," said Ken Barney, a transportation security consultant at Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems Corp. "So the other way to do it is to place a forward-looking sensor on the vehicle to look ahead." Barney said that adding an alert mechanism similar to the General Motors Corp. OnStar system used in automobiles would be easy to do immediately and would provide a critically needed alert mechanism for emergencies in remote regions.

Barry Ptashkin, a railroad security analyst at EDS, said networked forward-looking sensors or track sensors that include GPS- and RFID-based tracking systems could help improve security in the near term. While those technologies are widely used by freight trains, they're not typically used for passenger trains, Ptashkin said.

"Once this data is captured, it can be integrated into a uniform format and brought into a data warehouse that would give quick indicators of high-risk areas or key performance indicators and patterns that require investigation," said Ptashkin. "Even if it's limited, it's important to just start the concept and keep it moving."

Monday, March 22, 2004

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