Security guards lined the walls looking anxious. Inside the hall was the largest counter terrorism exhibition in the world, with some of the latest tools used by governments in the so-called war on terror on display. “Four men in a white transit van have just gathered by the bridge at the south of the car park,” came a call over one guard’s radio. “Surveillance is required.”
In the exhibition hall beyond the lines of security, 400 companies showcased their products to government officials and decision makers in the multi-billion pound terrorism industry, which has boomed since the Twin Towers attacks in 2001.
Many exhibitors had been criticised for supplying arms and surveillance technology to repressive dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa. Outside the hall demonstrators held signs that said “Stop evil trade” and one man was dressed as a Guantánamo Bay inmate with shackles round his wrists.
Only those affiliated with the government or defence industry could gain entry to the exhibition. Members of the public and much of the media were excluded.
After rigorous screening I had managed to gain a pass as an “industry journalist”. During the two-day exhibition I expected at any time to be tapped on the shoulder and ushered out the back door. But it never happened.
Next to a cafeteria in the exhibition hall selling falafel wraps and tuna melt paninis, there was excitement about a suicide bomber detector, flying CCTV cameras and x-ray scanners capable of seeing through walls. Just inside the main entrance, a man dressed in a full bomb disposal outfit was demonstrating how to disarm an improvised explosive device.
Standing by a large contraption named Counter Bomber at one stall, former US Marine JJ Bare explained how the device could detect suicidal terrorists with explosives strapped to their bodies.
“If you’re a human being with clothes on and you have a suicide vest or any sort of vest that explodes or potentially explodes, your radar return is distinctly different,” he said. “We exploit that to determine whether you’re a threat or not.”
Bare said Counter Bomber was being used in Afghanistan and Iraq by American troops and had so far “exceeded all thresholds” in terms of its success. He said there had been much interest from the Ministry of Defence in purchasing the device, which could be used outside airports to detect potential suicide bombers trying to board aeroplanes.
“It’s very timely,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate fact of life that people are willing to blow themselves up to kill other people. If I could have picked a different trade to be in, then I would probably do it. But this is a need.”
At another stall, Canadian developer Oculus was showcasing surveillance software to track movements and relationships between people through the monitoring of mobile phone calls, emails, text messages, financial transactions and social networks. The software, Geotime, is used by the US military and has been purchased by the Metropolitan Police as well as Northumbria University.
“Once I know where you’re at in time, where you’ve come from and how long you were there, I can work out usually what you’re doing,” said Curtis Garton, Oculus product management director. “We can collect data from all sorts of different sources. Your cellphone collects positional data; it could be emails that you’ve sent, instant messages, whatever it is. We show all those different types of data in one place.”
Other exhibitors sold hidden camera devices and CCTV capable of recognising the faces of known suspects or criminals.
Critics say such technology can be used against innocent people and is another example of a “surveillance state”, but others argue it is necessary to protect against the threat of terrorism.
One company, Ultrafine Technology, showcased a covert surveillance device that it claimed could see through walls.
“Sometimes it’s vital to know what’s happening on the other side of a wall,” said Ultrafine’s managing director, John Patterson, in a presentation to potential buyers. “The solution is to drill through and insert tiny cameras and microphones.”
Conferences and workshops at the exhibition focused on preparations for the London Olympics in 2012. Susan Hemming, head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s counter terrorism division, warned of the potential dangers.
“The biggest challenge the UK faces currently is managing the risk in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics,” she said. “We could see the targeting of athletes or spectators from countries that we don’t traditionally deal with.
“The authorities are never going to be 100 per cent successful every time, either in preventing an incident or prosecuting the perpetrators."
She added: “London is arguably the most multicultural and diverse city, with the highest overriding general threat level from an Olympic games in recent times.”
Although there were warnings about the need for increased vigilance in preparation for the Olympics, some exhibitors were concerned about a lack of investment from the government.
Michael McNulty, marketing director of UAVSI, which manufactures remote controlled CCTV devices attached to mini airplanes and helicopters, said hesitance to invest in his technology led him to believe the authorities were more concerned about flying in celebrities than monitoring the capital during the games.
Jenny Mottram, who works with a company specialising in nuclear decontamination, said the government was more interested in contracting out decontamination services than investing in it directly.
“With all the cuts at the moment it has been quite difficult across the industry,” she said. “With the Olympics they really need to think about the potential threat of chemical or nuclear attack.”
The Counter Terror Exhibition (CTE) is an annual event attended by leading experts from government, military, security services, law enforcement and academia.
Showcasing the latest in surveillance technologies, the event’s organisers say it brings “focus and clarity” to the complex task of “protecting people and assets from the threat presented by international terrorism”.
But critics disagree. Protest group Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) claims the CTE is an example of an “encroaching surveillance society”, and earlier this year called for a protest outside the event, saying it hoped to “expose the exploitation of fear for profit”.
Kaye Stearman, a spokesperson for CAAT, said: “There is a definite link between so-called counter-terror and more conventional arms fairs. As military budgets are cut – at least in western countries – both military and governments will be looking to cheaper civilian-type technologies, including electronic and surveillance equipment and services.”
This special report appeared originally in issue no.879 of Big Issue in the North.