New York City is putting together a technology-heavy defense for the world's most tempting terror target, lower Manhattan.
The question is whether any of the gear -- especially the network of 3,000 spy cameras -- will really work as advertised.
The 1.7 square miles below Canal Street boasts the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve Bank, City Hall, and four major bridges and tunnels. A bomb at any of these places could kill hundreds, cost the city billions, and rattle the world financial system.
Al Qaeda has hit the neighborhood twice, in 1993 and 2001. Officials say that several other plots have been broken up since.
City agencies have done their best to harden the financial district in the years since 2001. Today, explosives-sniffing dogs and two truckloads of cops wearing military-style body armor and waving M-4 machine guns surround the flag-draped stock exchange.
Black metallic barriers rise out of the asphalt, blocking traffic on Wall Street, while concrete planters and strategically parked trucks keep vehicles off Broad Street. Some of the other streets surrounding the exchange have been cut off to pedestrians, and only invited guests are allowed inside. "Closed since 9/11," the guard tells visitors.
But you can't block off every street or have a guard by every door. There's no budget for that, and no one would want to live or work in that kind of armed camp anyway. "You can make a justification for putting bollards in front of every building," says a former high-ranking NYPD counterterrorism official.
"But pretty soon you can't walk anywhere. People leave."
So New York has an audacious blueprint to wrap a high tech cloak around lower Manhattan. It will provide the most sophisticated armor of any major urban area in the world — one that relies on brains as much as brawn, on barely visible technology as much as brute stopping power.
There will be upgrades citywide, including a new, next-gen cell network and an overhaul of the subway's security system.
Electronic license plate readers, both stationary and mounted on mobile police units, can already scan thousands of cars per day and instantly alert police if a suspect in their database approaches or enters the financial district.
Massive vehicle barriers will be able to block off the busiest streets on a signal from HQ, even shutting down the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. An array of 3,000 cameras will turn the area into a 1.7-square-mile, open-air Panopticon.
And unlike London's surveillance system, the so-called Ring of Steel, New York's cameras are supposed to do more than identify terrorists after they've struck. Assistant chief John Colgan, who commands the police department's counterterrorism bureau, hopes they'll keep the next disaster from happening.
"This is about identifying and eliminating a threat, rather than dealing with the consequences," says Colgan, a compact redhead with a bushy mustache. "I'm not in the consequence-management business."
Of course, the same technology could be used to invade privacy more efficiently, and even some in the NYPD are concerned: "I certainly don't want my family to come under view just because they're walking through a certain part of town," one counterterrorism official told me.
But that's only a concern if the surveillance net actually works. So far, similar efforts have flopped, badly.
For example -- and this is an exclusive to DANGER ROOM -- Chicago officials promised in 2004 that a citywide array of 2,000 public and private cameras would be ready by March of '06.
Right now, there are only a few hundred cameras up, in the downtown "Loop," officials there tell me. All of them are city-owned. None are equipped with any kind of video analytics that would make it possible to interdict a terror attack.
The problem has been infrastructure: Chicago thought it had all the fiber it needed to put a camera ring together – over 500 miles worth; but when the city started building, it discovered it need 30 miles more, and right in the heart of town. Then the sidewalks starting collapsing.
Those are the kind of snags you run into, when you're slipping new infrastructure into hundred-and-fifty year-old streets. Now, at least, Chicago has its core network complete: the combination of wireless nodes and fiber, to string the cameras together; the 56 terrabyte storage area network, to hold the video; the hot backup site in an undisclosed location, in case it all goes down.
But it hasn't been easy. Or cheap.