There are spy eyes everywhere – and now they share a brain


An afternoon In the fall of 2019, in a large old office building near the Arc de Triomphe, I was buzzed through an unmarked door into a showroom for the future of surveillance. The space on the other side was dark and sleek, with a look somewhere between an Apple Store and an apocalyptic bunker. Along one wall, a grid of electronics twinkled in the moody downlight – automated license plate readers, Wi-Fi locks, square data processing units. I was here to meet Giovanni Gaccione, who heads the public safety division of a security technology company called Genetec. Based in Montreal, the company operates four of these “experience centers” around the world, where it sells intelligence products to government officials. Genetec’s main sale here was software, and Gaccione had agreed to show me how it worked.

It first led me to a big screen running a demo version of Citigraf, its division’s flagship product. The screen displays a map of the east side of Chicago. Around the edges were video streams the size of a thumbnail from the neighborhood CCTV cameras. In a stream, a woman appeared to be unloading luggage from a car on the sidewalk. An alert appeared over his head: “ILLEGAL PARKING.” The map itself was dotted with color-coded icons – a house on fire, a gun, a pair of wrestling sticks – each of which, Gaccione explained, corresponded to an ongoing emergency. He selected the baton digits, which denoted an assault, and a reading appeared on the screen with some sparse detail taken from the 911 dispatch center. At the bottom there was a button labeled “INQUIRY”, which only asked than to be clicked.

Citigraf was conceived in 2016, when the Chicago Police Department hired Genetec to solve a surveillance conundrum. Like other major law enforcement agencies across the country, the ministry had built up such an impressive arsenal of technologies to keep tabs on citizens that it had reached the point of surveillance overload. To get a clear picture of an ongoing emergency, officers often had to browse dozens of Byzantine databases and distant sensor feeds, including gunshot detectors, license plate readers. and public and private security cameras. This process of braiding strands of information – “multi-intelligence fusion” is the technical term) was becoming too difficult. As one Chicago official put it, echoing an aphorism well used in watch circles, the city was “rich in data but poor in information.” Investigators needed a tool that could cut a clean line through the maze. What they needed was an automated merge.

Gaccione has now demonstrated the concept in practice. He clicked “INVESTIGATE” and Citigraf got down to work on the reported assault. The software runs on what Genetec calls a “correlation engine,” a suite of algorithms that scour a city’s historical police records and live sensor feeds, looking for patterns and connections. Seconds later, a long list of possible leads appeared on screen, including a list of individuals previously arrested in the neighborhood for violent crimes, the home addresses of parolees living nearby, a catalog of similar recent 911 calls, photographs and license plate numbers of vehicles that had been detected driving away from the scene at high speed, and video feeds from any cameras that may have picked up evidence of the crime itself, including those mounted on passing buses and trains. More than enough information, in other words, for an officer to answer that initial 911 call with an almost telepathic sense of what just happened.

Gaccione turned to a second console, this one loaded with a program called Valcri. Where Citigraf is designed to relay early leads to patrol officers rushing to crime scenes, Valcri is aimed at detectives working long cases within the compound. Originally developed to eliminate sex trafficking networks, its fusion algorithms seek out more subtle, more elaborate patterns that could span years of unstructured data. Gaccione told me about a counterterrorism unit, which he would not name, which had used the system to build a detailed profile of “a middle-aged unemployed person showing signs of radicalization”, using “Various databases, video surveillance, phone records, banking transactions and other methods of monitoring.” If it was done manually, he estimated, that kind of investigative grunt work would take a few weeks. In this case, it took “less than a day”.

The fusion technology market has experienced a silent boom in recent years. Genetec says Citigraf is deployed in “many cities”. A growing number of established tech giants, including Cisco, Microsoft, and Motorola, sell fusion systems around the world, often under the guise of “smart city” modernization packages. (Cisco sometimes even sweetens the pot with interest-free funding.) Palantir, which advertises itself as a “data integration” company, would count among its clients the Central Intelligence Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anduril built a “virtual wall” along parts of the border with Mexico, using fusion software to link a network of watch towers. Last fall, the four-year-old company won a flexible contract, capped at $ 950 million, to bring pieces of technology to the U.S. military. Advanced combat management system.

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