America's malls face a challenge: keeping terrorists out, welcoming shoppers in. We wouldn't put up with metal detectors, so "mall cops" are left to guard the front lines.
The nation's second-largest mall company is right here in Chicago, managing everything from Oakbrook Center to Water Tower Place. They're using video surveillance that might impress the Pentagon, training their guards to study how shoppers act, not just how they look.
"This is Honolulu, Hawaii; Houston, Texas; Altemont near Orlando, Florida..."
From his laptop here in Chicago, David Levenberg, vice president of security for General Growth Properties, can keep an eye on 40 shopping malls -- all at once.
"Your security guys here could be on their laptop in their cubicle, paying attention to what's happening around the country?" I ask.
"Right. That's technology! That's the beauty of the new technology," Levenberg says.
As terrorists have downsized their attacks, from the twin towers to trains, America's shopping centers are increasingly watching their backs.
"How long before this country sees a simultaneous ten explosions in Starbucks in middle America?" I ask.
"You know, I don't think we can ever predict or even try to predict when that may happen," says Levenberg. "I think everybody I've talked to within the government -- FBI, DHS -- feel as if the likelihood is there will be an attack inside the U.S. at some point in the future unless something changes."
So Levenberg's company is changing how it protects each of its 210 malls. They're trying out fancy technology, used at the Super Bowl, to recognize bad guys' faces. They're even considering "sniffers" to check the air for chemical weapons. But it's smarter surveillance that's helped Israel stop more than a hundred attempted shopping mall attacks.
"People don't wake up one morning and say 'I'm going to put on my backpack and go blow myself up in a shopping center,' " explains Levenberg. "Even in London, we saw video and photographs of these four guys who did dry runs."
"We concentrate on training our people as to what to look for," he continues.
"Why did this guy circle around and take a digital photo of something over here?" I ask.
"-- and once we recognize that, what do we do with it? How do we act upon that?"
Malls are also testing their reaction, should security miss the warning signs before an attack. Levenberg supervised this massive drill, code named "Dark Cloud," in northern California.
"The scenario was a kiddie balloon vendor that was in the mall with a cart, who eventually released a toxic chemical in the mall," he says.
"Due to an emergency we must evacuate the building," a recorded public address announcement in the Northridge Fashion Mall declared.
Using the vaunted surveillance system, mall security rewinds to find the terrorists' license plate. They also spot a briefcase bomb: only after firefighters are sent in to save shoppers.
"The secondary device is found to be a highly explosive device with a timer," explains the simulation's narrator.
In this drill, the bomb squad wins. In the real world, that briefcase could have blown up the mall, along with those first responders.
"I only wish there was a foolproof technique or piece of equipment that could guarantee that kind of thing would ever happen. Unfortunately, today, there is not," says Levenberg.
What there is, is a harder target. Not the metal detectors and sharpshooters the military recommended after 9/11, but better and smarter technology.
"If I take this particular camera and I want to watch this roof at night, I draw a little area and if there's any movement in that area during that time period, it will bring this up as an alarm," says Levenberg, demonstrating the remote surveillance software on his laptop. "So again, now I don't have to sit there and watch my roof access all night. I know that it's protected."
Here's a good example of how they're using that technology: Used to be, if someone was found in a back hallway, security would just shoo them away. Now, they try to interview them, save their picture, get a license plate number. Anything to help authorities trace a terror plan.
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