Security and Counterterrorism in London

I have just spent two days at the annual Security and Counter Terror Expo in London, where the Westminster attack seems to have re-awakened buyer interest in all products security-related, and a new flood of government funding for security upgrades.

Prime Minister Theresa May was Minister responsible for the Home Office during 2010-2016 and remains supportive of appropriately targeted security expenditure. (The Home Office is responsible for policing in England and Wales and matters of national security, as well as the Security Service.)

May seems well respected for her strong and determined leadership of the UK as she battles for the best deal for a post-Brexit Britain. She will be well placed to run master classes in strong leadership for ambitious Australian politicians when her political career is over.

Anyway, back to the Expo. It was held at Olympia and comprised about 200 exhibitors and five conference streams: “Critical National Infrastructure and Business Resilience”; “Cyber Threat Intelligence”; “Secure – Design – Build”; “World Counter Terror Congress”, and; “Border and Transport Security”. There were also continual briefings on vendor products, forensic developments and security-related topics.

I spent day one at the World Counter Terror Congress, not realising it was only for paying customers. I discovered this when I went to the first session on day two. The guardian at the door told me that the security scanning of passes had not been working on day one so I had been lucky to get a free day. Not a good look for a security conference!

I found that day one was of mixed value, with some good presentations and some poor ones. All of the presenters were based in Europe and presented on European terrorism and counterterrorism. Even the presenter from the “Asia-Pacific Working Group”, Dr Sajjan Gohel, was based in London. That said, Dr Gohel’s presentation was the best of the day, with interesting new analysis of the terrorist attacks in Western Europe. Most of the PowerPoints during the day would have got a failing grade on my courses, with little attempt by the presenters to go beyond black letters on a white background.

The day one presenters were a mix from government and NGOs, and their main focus was domestic incidents. In the past two years only six people have died in the UK in terrorism attacks, while 60 Britons have died outside the UK, most of them outside Western Europe. This mirrors the Australian situation. Since the year 2000, nine people have died in Australia in terrorism-related incidents, while 131 Australians have been killed overseas – most of them (95) in Indonesia.

On day two I went to the other conference streams, which were all free of charge and more operationally focused. The frustration was in having interesting sessions clashing. As always, there were temptations to go to sessions that were not work-related but interesting – like new developments in forging documents, cyber scams, detecting fake coins, and blood splatter analysis.

This year the trade show featured many drone-detection and counter-drone technologies as a result of security scares and Islamic State’s growing use of drones for surveillance and explosives delivery. Other drone concerns relate to the dangers posed to air traffic by the use of drones in restricted air space over military and intelligence areas and airports, and in close proximity to VIPs.

Vehicle manufacturers are concerned that vehicles cars can now be monitored and manipulated remotely, particularly as they are becoming more joined up to the internet. The Hertz hire car I had after the Expo had, as standard, an internet link and wifi hotspot, and tracking device.

The lucrative practice of vehicle maintenance by dealerships is also under threat. I was told that John Deere tractors come with special software that prevents owners from having them repaired by anyone other than a John Deere dealership. However, a Ukrainian company is now selling software that allows the John Deere software to be overridden so that anyone can work on them.

Many of the new security products were innovative and I don’t have space to discuss them here, but I will mention one product that impressed me.

It was able to fuse overhead imagery and communications intercepts. The first step was to use Google Earth to drill down on a location such as a city block. The software would then highlight the geographic location of all social media posts being generated in real time as bubbles – with different colours for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. The clever part was being able to click on the bubbles to read the senders’ posts and access the senders’ and recipients’ social media accounts and metadata.

George Orwell would no doubt be horrified, but in today’s world, you can only be assured of some privacy if you have no electronic devices, and remain at home – but even then, infrared detection systems can monitor what you are doing.

Clive Williams is an honorary professor at the Centre for Military and Security Law at the ANU and an Associate Professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.