Now Raytheon feels investigative journalism heat

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01/18/2010
Yeah. Not a great month for major federal contractors tasked with deploying giant intrusion detection systems. First 60 Minutes made Boeing's border project look very, very bad, now NYC's ABC affiliate does a pretty good job of making Raytheon's perimeter solution for Port Authority look pretty ugly, indeed. First, take a watch, then I'll offer my thoughts: On some level, this is a good thing. People should hold those charged with keeping them safe accountable. People should feel like they're getting what they paid for and they should be angry when they don't. But it's hard not to predict a pattern here: Journalists are starting to sniff out that these high-tech security systems are easy targets. They've got huge dollar amounts attached to them - $100 million in this case - and there are no shortage of critics willing to come out of the woodwork. Add those two things together and you've got an easy sensationalist report if someone drops a dime to say things aren't working right (which is obviously what happened here - the interior pictures of the vacant command center weren't exactly authorized, I'm sure). In this case, the story is still pretty damning. The letter from the Port Authority is not good, what with the "inadequate performance" and "lack of focus" and "stopped all payments" because the system doesn't work. I can assure you the general public really doesn't like seeing an unstaffed command and control center for a four-year-old project that cost $100 million. It's more fuel for a fire of distaste burning pretty brightly amongst the American public. However, there's pretty clearly an undercurrent of conflict of interest that ABC just glosses over: "The system is not up an running at any of the airports," said Paul Nunziato of the Port Authority Police Union. Paul's worried that more technology means fewer police officers (despite evidence presented that Port Authority has significantly more officers than it did prior to 2001). If they ever do get this thing working, he's thinking, well there won't be as much need for patrols and cops will just become desk jockeys manning camera stations or completely unnecessary. So, he's fairly eager to point out how technology (especially "unproven" technology, as though no one's ever used cameras and motion detection before to set up a perimeter) just doesn't work like good old flesh and blood. Other than in rare cases where an actual guard is protecting a particularly remote and relatively safe site, I haven't really heard the argument made that often for eliminating guards with technology. Even the hardcore video monitoring guys generally only talk about augmenting a guard force, making them more efficient, and giving them information to use as they approach a scene. No matter how many police/guards you have, they can't be everywhere. Cameras can. Of course, there's a case study floating around about how video analytics saved South Florida International a half million dollars a year by cutting 13 guards, so that might be what's got Paul up in arms. But, of course, guards are only replaced if the cameras and the motion detectors work right. It was really interesting to hear the desk host in the intro make the comparison to a burglar alarm (of course I like it - it's the comparison I made last week with the 60 Minutes thing) because that industry has been just as plagued with false alarms as the poor Port Authority here. But the burglar guys are addressing the issue and they know it's vital to the long-term health of the industry. Just as Raytheon now finds addressing false alarms is vital to the long-term health of its contract with Port Authority. Did they over-promise and under-deliver? Are they part of the problem that has security systems installers looking more and more like snake-oil salesmen? It won't be long before a politician really takes up this cause and fights a battle against deploying technology for security purposes. The focus really now needs to be on under-promising and over-delivering. Unfortunately, those stories rarely wind up on the evening news.