One day the eyes will be everywhere. They'll be digital. They'll be networked to computers programmed to spot the unusual, from guns to abandoned packages to fist fights to people lying prone in public places. They'll identify faces in crowds — lost children, career criminals, terror suspects. Thumbprints and retinal scans will control who goes where.

This sort of cutting-edge surveillance is already being used at some government facilities, airports, casinos and large-scale special events. Not, however, at shopping malls. While many malls are moving toward upgrading their surveillance equipment, experts disagree about the extent to which high-tech security solutions can detect and prevent terrorist plots. Even less clear is the commitment of mall operators to fund such things — after all, it hasn't happened here. Yet.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, when the entire country was on high alert and bomb-sniffing dogs could be found padding through malls, the fear of terror was palpable. Some mall operators worked with vendors to bring in special bomb-proof garbage cans, and many installed stylized architectural barriers in front of entrances to stop explosives-laden trucks from barreling into otherwise unprotected atriums.

But while the threat of terrorism still resonates, American mall operators in 2006 remain most concerned with common crime: robberies, muggings, drug dealing and gun violence. Despite murmurs to the contrary — and Hollywood plotlines like the recent episode of 24 on Fox, which involved a terrorist scheme to release nerve gas in a fictional mall — consumers and shopping center operators don't seem too frightened.

Alan Greggo, the senior director of loss prevention for eyeglass-giant Luxottica, says his company's stores are fitted with digital video recording systems, usually two to four cameras. The degree to which security guards might intervene on behalf of a store varies from mall to mall, though larger malls with bigger security budgets sometimes offer an inter-mall communication system, which informs retailers about organized theft rings and other threats. But there have not been great efforts to secure malls against terrorism, he says, even though similarly crowded centers of commerce have become targets in other parts of the world.

“My fear is … there may be a day in the future when we start to see those types of attacks occurring in our malls, our shopping plazas, our lifestyle centers,” says Greggo, who sits on the retail loss prevention council of ASIS International, the world's largest association of security professionals. “Certainly, attacking one mall won't break us down economically, but there's a symbolism behind it.”

Still, most developers dismiss the technology as too expensive and unnecessary. They don't want to talk about their security set-ups, because they think it will give away too much information to the enemy.

Going high-tech

For mall operators who want to take their security operations to the next level, there's plenty of high-tech gadgetry to choose from, and it's getting more sophisticated and less expensive all the time, says Jonathan Lusher, a senior vice president and consultant with IPC Security International, the largest security firm in the mall industry. It might be as simple as linking fire control panels to handheld devices for security officers, or as complex as wiring an entire center for video surveillance.

“When you talk about security at most facilities, you're talking about keeping people out. That's the opposite of what we're trying to do, and that's the essence of our challenge,” Lusher says. “We don't want people afraid of security … but we do have a responsibility to keep them safe. And technology is a tool that helps us do that.”

Most modern surveillance equipment is digital, run by computer networks, which makes upgrading the systems as easy as loading new software, Lusher says. The cameras can be programmed to spot problems and alert operators to things like a bag left unattended in a food court or a shopper who has fallen down. They can be put to sleep, so at a loading dock where there isn't a lot of activity, they can be reactivated by motion. They also can be integrated with other systems, such as fire alarms and call boxes in parking garages.

Rather than operating on a closed circuit, modern video surveillance networks run on Internet protocol, which means they can be accessed from anywhere. Someone 10,000 miles away can look at what's on the screen, and if properly authorized, control the system. This makes the surveillance systems management tools as well as security devices of potential use to anyone from corporate officers and leasing agents to law enforcement, Lusher says. His firm is working on systems that feed live streaming video to and from security patrol vehicles, so the operator in the mall's security control room can better communicate with officers on the grounds.

The systems themselves are of higher quality than they used to be — the pictures are clearer — and they are rapidly dropping in price. What was not affordable even two years ago for many shopping centers is now within reach, Lusher says, as prices have fallen by as much as two-thirds. And because the technology is more sophisticated, less comprehensive systems can accomplish a great deal. “Before, you needed a complex and wide-ranging system to get any benefit; that's not the case now,” he says. “The per-unit cost is so low, it's very easy to do.”

The technologies at the leading edge are easy to expand and upgrade. Insiders call this “open architecture,” which means the systems speak the same language. In the past, camera networks were often proprietary; if you wanted to expand, you'd have to purchase upgrades from the same company. That is not the case anymore.

Peeping Tom?

The latest technologies are unobtrusive, too. Take a newly developed camera from Brijot Imaging Systems for example. These futuristic gadgets, which just went into production in February, scan your body with radio waves, using the same technology long-range telescopes use to look at faraway planets. They can be held in a security officer's hand at 10 paces, or mounted inconspicuously on walls, in housings that look a bit like air purifiers. They can see through drywall and paper, so they could even be tucked behind artwork, posters or maps.

Through its lens, a human being is just a blue blob, a walking, talking organism composed mostly of hot, salty water. Against this liquid backdrop, things that don't belong stand out: a gun, a knife, a belt laden with explosives.

Not surprisingly, the earliest interest in Brijot's camera has come from the government and airports. In the commercial world, they've attracted the attention of people in charge of security at high-value events, such as those held in large sporting venues. Eventually, they could be used to help secure malls, but so far, owners have expressed little interest in the technology.

Even more revolutionary technologies are out there. Biometric readers can control access to restricted areas with the use of thumbprints. Facial recognition software, already in use in some places but still being developed, is just over the horizon. Wireless technology, and in some cases, solar power, for outdoor cameras and call boxes, can help operators of older properties avoid digging up parking lots.

Privacy issues

So, will these cameras leave shoppers with the feeling that Big Brother is watching?

Lusher and other consultants think not. Cities across the nation already rely on cameras to catch red-light runners and toll booth cheats, and they're increasingly used to curb other types of crime. In Chicago, more than 2,000 digital eyeballs monitor government buildings, rail platforms and other public spaces, and a recently proposed ordinance would require certain businesses, such as bars and convenience stores, to install cameras to monitor the comings and goings of customers.

New York City is working with Lockheed Martin Corp. to install 1,000 video cameras with 3,000 sensors in its subway and commuter rail system, a $212 million project expected to be completed by 2008. The new computerized cameras, which will cover bridges and tunnels leading into the city, will be linked to existing closed-circuit TV and programmed to sound alarms if someone leaves a package unattended or enters a restricted area. The city is also examining the surveillance system in the London Underground that captured images of suicide bombers in an attack last summer.

As long as cameras in malls don't intrude on private spaces, such as lavatories and fitting rooms, customers are unlikely to object, Lusher says. In fact, research shows people are reassured by the presence of security officers, good lighting and visible camera systems. The cameras may even be a deterrent to crime.

“We want the bad guy to see them and know he's going to be taped, and we want the good guy to see them and feel safe,” Lusher says. “It's absolutely necessary that cameras be watched, and recorded, and that the people monitoring them have some appropriate method of response, whether it's calling the cops or dispatching security.”

As sophisticated and cheap as the new surveillance systems have become, it's still easy to buy the wrong stuff. For mall operators assessing their security liabilities, a consultant who isn't tied to a specific brand can be a big help. And environment matters; the kind of camera that would work outside a mall in Minnesota will be different from the type installed outdoors in Florida. Malls in city blocks will have different needs from suburban properties surrounded by parking lots. Costs can vary dramatically, depending on how much equipment is needed; many vendors provide volume discounts.

But the question remains: Is it worth it?

Some experts say the answer rests not on the price of the gadgets, but the quality of the flesh-and-blood staff working with them. A significant factor in the kind of security equipment mall operators should buy is how many security officers are available, and their level of training, says Tom McCoig, a senior security consultant with Telemus Solutions. Millions of dollars spent on high-tech systems are meaningless if security staffing is contracted out to the lowest bidder, and those operating the cameras lack proper training to handle potential threats.

Technology purchases should be carefully considered decisions based on vulnerability assessments, not knee-jerk reactions to security problems, McCoig says. If, for example, a mall installs software to check the license plates of cars going into its parking garage, it should be clear what the security staff is looking for and why, McCoig says. They may learn that someone in a stolen car has gone to the mall, but that doesn't necessarily mean that person was there to commit a crime.

“Security managers need to be able to sit down and say, ‘We just purchased 25 cameras, where do we put them? Why do we put them there?’” McCoig says. “If someone is telling you you need more cameras, find out why. What's the purpose? Who's going to watch them? There are a lot of questions to answer.”

Indeed, if the security basics haven't been addressed, a camera system may not be the best next step. Sometimes simply improving communications with local police can make a mall safer. There may be too few security officers, and they may lack appropriate uniforms, adequate training or vehicles to adequately patrol the grounds.

There are also a host of physical plant issues to consider; landscaping, lighting and the smart use of materials can go a long way to discourage loitering, graffiti and more serious crimes. A school of security thought has sprung up around the concept of crime prevention through environmental design. Architectural upgrades, like the stone barriers or planters that serve as defenses against car bombs, may be necessary at older properties.

“We believe the camera system is like a lot of things, it's a tool, but they have to make sure it's the right tool for the job … and cameras are often not the correct next step,” Lusher says. “But more and more often, it is, as the overall sophistication of mall security has dramatically increased over the last five years.”