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Be prepared

May 20, 2024 by Alistair Enser

Lord Toby Harris’ review into London’s preparedness for a terrorist incident was published recently and I have been going through it. The report was commissioned by London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and came on the back of an earlier review into terrorist incidents across Western Europe including the Bataclan, Nice and Manchester bombing atrocities.

Having spoken myself to the Manchester enquiry team and looking through Harris’ extremely comprehensive report it’s clear that, while a considerable amount of progress has been made by the authorities since his first report of 2016, there is lots of work still to be done to ensure London is best prepared for a terrorist incident.

Eliminating blind spots

One of the report’s recommendations is that blind spots in CCTV coverage must be eliminated – the Manchester bomber was able to prepare for the attack undetected on video for 20 minutes because of a CCTV blind spot. Harris concludes:

“The very significant role played by the blind spot in which the perpetrator was able to remain unnoticed in advance of his attack is highlighted by the finding that had it been addressed, it is likely the attack would have been disrupted, deterred or, at the least, fewer people killed and injured.”

He admits, and I completely agree, that it will never be possible, nor acceptable to achieve 100% camera coverage across London, but there is an awful lot we can improve on. For example, the report makes the case for measured and intelligent use of video analytics and facial recognition, noting that:

“The ability to automatically scan very large crowds amassing in public spaces and at large events across London to identify any persons known to represent a terrorist threat could be a valuable part of the wider protective security toolkit in terms of informing those whose job it is to keep the public safe. It has potential, too, for managing risk through identifying individuals present where they should not be, for example, airside in an airport without authorisation.”

As I have argued in the past, analytics can be used for good. It is certainly not the case that ‘one size fits all’, and Lord Harris echoes comments I have made that “the development of the technology continues to outpace considerations governing its use and the purposes for which it can legitimately be deployed.” Regular readers will remember the surveys I ran during the lockdown, which asked whether the use of ANPR to detect cars breaking lockdown rules and travelling outside specific areas would be supported. A clear majority agreed with this application for the technology.

It is not unusual for technology to outpace policy and ethical and legal considerations, and public understanding is likely to lag behind the introduction of this type of technology. Yet as my survey demonstrated, where people are shown how technology can keep us safer, there is broad support for its use. Proper meaningful debate is needed: we need a more mature approach towards surveillance technology.

It’s not just about technology

A debate must also be had about manned guarding. The Harris Report addresses the shortage of properly trained security staff as a result of the pandemic, and notes that “many event organisers and venue operators have been struggling to secure qualified security staff.” The forthcoming Protect Duty legislation will place a greater onus of those responsible for publicly accessible locations or PALs, and a combination of video and well-trained security staff will need to be the response.

Yet while unsubstantiated, my fear is that many security personnel at public events are often recently drafted temporary staff, not sufficiently and professionally trained to the standard that is required if people are to be kept safe. An SIA licence can be obtained in just over three weeks, which includes training, application and processing. Most of that time was spent on background checks. Would I put my life in the hands of someone who has had a few days of training? Is this sufficient?

We need to take security more seriously in terms of professional training for security operators. And, in an appropriate way, we need to embrace technology where it can supplement and assist. If there are debates to be had around the legalities and ethics of video analytics and other technologies these debates should be fast-tracked.

Indeed, reading the Harris Report I am struck that we haven’t come to a conclusion as a society, country or industry, on what is allowed, or not allowed. Why can’t we get off the fence and decide once and for all whether the police can use facial recognition technology? Why can’t we agree that security staff should be properly trained to provide the vital eyes and ears that Lord Harris recommends? It might sound simplistic, but I speak to public and private sector bodies every day and they each have a different opinion on what the legislation is, and how it applies to them. It’s to time to clear up the confusion.