Security professionals responsible for people screening at outdoor venues, theme parks, warehouse/logistics centers, schools, museums, houses of worship and other public places, all agree on one thing — there will be no going back to the old invasive, analog methods of security screening such as metal detectors, wands and pat downs.
The future of people screening must be touchless and digital in order to deal with the realities of today’s threats from weapons and viruses, while preparing for those that will come our way in the future.
George has a decades-long track record in leading cybersecurity companies and building disruptive technology startups into market leaders. He joined Evolv Technology in February 2019 as chief commercial officer and was promoted to chief executive officer (CEO) in January 2020.
Earlier in his career, as chairman, president and CEO with cybersecurity pioneer Fidelis Security Systems, George guided the firm through substantial growth that prompted its acquisition by General Dynamics.
He currently serves on the board at DDoS attack protection provider Corero Network Security, and previously was a board member at Flashpoint, a forward-leaning cyber and physical security threat intelligence company. In addition to cybersecurity, George has led the domestic and international commercialization operations at multiple software and networking companies as president, board member and investor.
Here, we talk to George about the need for physical security screening technology in today’s “touchless” world.
Security magazine: Let’s discuss the rise of security screening technologies. How does this technology use differ pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19?
George: Many public venues, places of work and other locations have been using decades-old metal detectors to conduct security screening of patrons, visitors and employees to prevent people carrying guns, knives and other weapons from entering facilities where they could harm innocent people. Metal detectors are exactly that—they detect a full range of metal objects, which means weapons as well as cell phones, laptops, car keys and other everyday items we all carry with us. So, determining whether the objects that set off the metal detectors present actual threats or are just nuisance alarms requires additional layers of screening such as manual searches or hand-wanding. Those extra steps are slow, invasive, inefficient and often cause long lines. Even more importantly, metal detectors don’t account for newer threats that have emerged in recent years, including explosives, plastic weapons and more. These dynamics force many venues to choose between safety and the visitor experience.
Security Screening Pre-COVID-19
Before COVID-19, in an age of armed anxiety, security screening – or people screening, if you will – had to adapt to address the ever-increasing threats of mass shootings and terrorist attacks that have plagued the globe. It’s unfortunate that there are far too many examples to draw from. Entertainment venues, theme parks, stadiums, cultural landmarks, corporations, hospitals, schools, houses of worship and airports have all faced these atrocities. They’re looking to overcome the tradeoff between safety and the inconvenience of an intrusive screening experience. They needed a system that delivered quick, fluid detection capable of spotting a range of metal and non-metallic weapons and a better visitor experience. Legacy metal detectors just couldn’t fulfill those requirements.
Organizations and their security teams were already looking for security screening systems that capitalized on modern technology to differentiate and identify threats from personal items; allow people to quickly pass through screening individually or in groups—with backpacks on shoulders, smart phones and keys in pockets, etc. The model of treating everyone as if they’re guilty of carrying weapons and so needing to search every bag and every person, one-by-one, was already starting to fail most organizations.
Security Screening Post-COVID
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve had numerous conversations with leaders who are responsible for people screening at live sports and entertainment venues, workplaces, schools, houses of worship and outdoor theme parks across the U.S.
Along with our heroic first responders, few feel it more intensely than the men and women responsible for helping people safely gather in a time when the act of gathering itself has become a mortal threat. The entire world was shut down, halting pretty much everything. As the world slowly reopens, businesses are now in the process of reformatting and rebooting and security leaders are struggling with how to reopen safely, attract visitors, and chart the course to stay open. One thing is for certain—there is no going back to old invasive, analog methods of security screening such as metal detectors, hand wands and pat downs. The future of people screening must be touchless and digital in order to deal with the realities of today’s threats that include weapons as well as viruses, while preparing for threats that will come our way in the future.
Security Magazine: Are former security screening processes not adequate for today’s challenges, including mandates on physical contact, social distancing and other health-related policies to curb the rate of infection and impact of COVID-19?
George: The COVID-19 virus is weaponizing people in a way that we’ve never seen before. Crowded places and mere human contact multiply the dangers. As a result, visitors and employees are paying far more attention to how venues and workplaces are handling the new normal of the pandemic and weighing the risk versus rewards of venturing in. Security screening is certainly a process that visitors, patrons and employees will expect to be quite different than the days before the pandemic. COVID-19 has changed the “risk profile” of how people gather. So, outdoor venues, workplaces, conferences, schools and virtually all other organizations must adopt a pandemic-aware security posture in the new normal if they want to survive and thrive.
Making visitors and employees feel safe in a post-COVID era is just not feasible with legacy metal detectors, manual bag inspections and other burdensome steps that result in bottlenecks. Suffice to say, no one believes traditional high-touch entry security screening will survive the pandemic. Touchless visitor experience is part of the new normal. Venues are required to implement new regulations and mandated protocols that include social distancing, and visitors and employees expect to see a very orderly, safe screening that allows people to walk through while maintaining adequate social distancing along with little to no contact.
There have been six serious pandemics in just the last two decades: SARS, MERS, avian flu, swine flu, Ebola, and now COVID-19. A pandemic-aware security posture is not a passing fad or phase. Therefore, physical security teams must develop the ability to adapt to future pandemics that, as history has shown, will strike.
Many venues during the re-opening phase, such as theme parks and museums, have added thermal imaging for identifying guests with elevated body temperature as well as touchless security screening as part of their social-distancing procedures. I believe this is the beginning of a new trend of multi-threat screening that is changing venues and guest experiences permanently.
Security Magazine: Does the future of security/people screening need to be touchless and digital in order to deal with the realities of today’s (and future) threats from weapons and viruses?
George: The future of security screening absolutely must be touchless and digital. In fact, I just read an excerpt from a report by McKinsey Global Institute stating that 85% of C-suite executives report a significant acceleration of digitization and automation during the pandemic. Security screening is experiencing exactly that reality.
Briefly, businesses across every industry are unlocking efficiency and value by digitizing old manual and analog processes. They are re-imagining their organizations and operations in a future that is defined by software, data, sensors, mobility, networks, machine learning, automation and analytics. It isn’t change for the sake of change. It’s change that allows the business to perform better in the modern world and readiness to respond more quickly to change in the future.
Some great examples include Anheuser-Busch InBev’s use of machine learning that help bars create more accurate orders, resulting in better customer satisfaction. Black & Decker’s use of networked sensors that helps them track the logistics of materials in factories to increase labor efficiency and quality. Walmart’s implementation of shelf-scanning robots that optimizes inventory performance. There are hundreds of other examples.
Unfortunately, physical security has tended to lag when it comes to digital transformation. That’s especially true when compared to the modern cybersecurity best practices, where I’ve spent much of my career. Increasingly, physical security managers are concerned about “reactive threat management” and “intuition-led decisions”. A big contributing factor for those concerns is the fact that their security screening technologies haven’t changed much since the 1920s and they are largely devoid of digital data. Analog metal detectors, hand wands and manual bag searches are outdated. I hear regularly from security leaders that weapons screening often feels like the land that time forgot. My promise to them is that we are working to bring them forward into the digital future.
The lack of modern technology in physical security has also placed undue burden on security staff. They are too often saddled with an ever-growing list of responsibilities — from manually checking guests for prohibited items, monitoring for suspicious or bad behavior, answering questions from guests, handling minor yet distracting incidents, cleaning up areas in and around security checks and a raft of other tasks. In the new normal, security staff must now conduct temperature checks, putting their own health at some risk. And, as the frontline, they are exposed to more volatile societal situations given the stresses of pandemic — more people licensed to carry guns, increases in extended job loss and lack of access to services for those dealing with mental illness to name a few.
Security Magazine: Is the physical security space currently where cybersecurity was more than 15 years ago, and now entering a similar transition? How so?
George: Absolutely. When you think about best practices that have been applied in cybersecurity—preventing malware from coming into the network, for example – the same principle can be applied to physical security. Organizations want to prevent the “bad guy” from coming into their venue.
We must remember, however, that cybersecurity was born inherently digital. For quite a while now, cybersecurity professionals have been immersed in a sea of digital data, and refined pattern recognition, based on cutting-edge artificial intelligence. They have deep and meaningful analytics and real-time threat intelligence at their disposal. That allows them to adapt to new threats in real time, so they can continuously secure their perimeter.
We’re closing the gap between cybersecurity and physical security, but we’ve just started. A new vision and technology architecture are emerging, which I refer to as the “Digital Threshold.” This vision applies the proven patterns of digital transformation and cybersecurity to everything that happens in the locations where people cross as they enter and exit today’s modern venues and facilities. It’s here, within this vision, that venues and facilities can intelligently use data to create a touchless experience for guests and employees to enhance the overall experience instead of diminishing it as we often encounter today. Making weapons screening faster and more precise is part of the Digital Threshold vision.
As we consider the potential of the Digital Threshold vision, we can ask interesting “what if” questions. What if the entry experience integrated both digital health screening and health credential processing into the screening process? Imagine that electronic ticketing, VIP identification, and “be on the lookout” (BOLO) alerts could also be part of the same seamless flow? And what if the Digital Threshold generated useful analytics that enable data-driven decisions about system adjustments and people flows? All of these scenarios are part of a Digital Threshold vision that not only addresses the current environment, but also creates the ability to adapt to handle future requirements when and where needed.
Security Magazine: Will this result in a convergence approach, where physical and cyber share data and are managed concurrently/holistically by organizations?
George: Yes, the worlds of cyber and physical security are converging as physical security goes through digital transformation. To see how this could happen, just take a look at the technology architecture. The Digital Threshold is more than just a vision for frictionless entry experiences — it’s a digital technology architecture of components that work together to realize the vision. These components include sensors, analytics and actions, all on top of the AI platform. I’ll briefly explain each component that supports this vision:
Sensors work together to spot multiple threats and supply useful insights about visitors. For example, data from magnetic field sensors make it possible to see the difference between a gun and a smartphone. Thermal imaging cameras provide the raw data that make it possible to identify people that have elevated body temperatures. Visible light cameras could gather the imagery needed to count visitors, estimate visitor demographics, and identify visitors as employees, VIP season pass holders or known threats. Microphones and biometric and credential readers could supply added insights about who and what is coming through the Digital Threshold.
As threats evolve and new sensors emerge, the Digital Threshold sensor array can expand as needed. The Digital Threshold allows venues to screen in a touchless manner for multiple threats in a single concept of operation (CONOP) rather than sending visitors through an obstacle course of standalone technologies. For those in the cybersecurity world, it’s like Palo Alto’s next generation firewall. Many businesses had a legacy firewall or point solution, and then they had several point solutions that never talked together. This created opportunities to compromise the network and get breached. It wasn't until Palo Alto provided a platform offering integrated capabilities — not just a firewall but intrusion detection, anomaly detection, etc. where they worked together in unison to dramatically increase their security posture. It was a next-generation solution and it transformed the industry.
Digital Threshold sensors produce a glut of raw digital data that must be stored, organized and turned into meaningful information. That’s where the AI software platform comes in. It’s essentially the brains of the Digital Threshold vision. As AI uses machine learning to spot complex patterns in data, more data and more kinds of data make machine learning models more precise over time. Having multiple digital sensors makes it possible to bring everything together in a way that increases situational awareness. The hardware is almost incidental and will someday come in many different forms. Instead of installing new hardware to improve accuracy, the machine learning models could be upgraded just as easily as software on smartphones. This totally changes the game when it comes to system upgrades. As the Digital Threshold gets smarter over time, rolling out new capabilities becomes a matter of clicks as opposed to forklifts.
When the AI software platform identifies a problem, imagine if the Digital Threshold action flow engine could spring into action to orchestrate the appropriate response. It’s more than just beeps and alarms. For example, visitors could see a temporary “Slow Down” message when sensors detect crowding that violates social distancing requirements. If a potential weapon is identified, the visitor might be visually directed to a weapon screening resolution station on the left, while a person with an elevated body temperature could be directed to a health screening station on the right. Season ticket holders might be greeted with a “Welcome Back!” display. Whatever the situation, the Digital Threshold could guide visitors and security staff with a suitable programmed response. The key word here is programmed. Because it would be a software workflow engine, actions could be altered and customized over time without a having to upgrade hardware. It’s software-defined physical security that could prove to be just as revolutionary as software-defined networking.
Since the Digital Threshold feeds on digital data, it could become possible to generate an ever-growing number of useful analytics to help plan and execute a frictionless experience. For example, based on the type of event, day of the week, weather forecast and current tour of a specific performer, a Digital Threshold-equipped venue manager could potentially answer questions like what time did the arrival rate peak before last week’s event? Is entrance throughput consistent with our social distancing guidelines? And demographics, too. Once the data is in an analytics platform, there is almost no end to the questions we might be able to answer. Being equipped with powerful analytics could be a huge step down the path to data-driven decision-making. Not only do these analytic insights keep people safely moving based on their risk profile, but they also allow venues more opportunities to monetize the visitor experience more effectively.
When this technical architecture is fully realized, cyber threat intelligence and prevention and physical security threat intelligence and prevention will be on the same plane, making it possible to share data and have more complete situational awareness. There is a lot of work ahead to realize that ideal, but we’re taking the first steps.
While it is impossible to specifically predict every new threat, digital technology makes it possible to reduce the window of exposure and minimize disruption. It's about generating, harnessing and trusting data to make the most important decisions about safety immediately. It’s about maintaining a security posture that creates trust and confidence among employees and visitors. It is security that is obvious but low-profile, strong but not invasive, fast but not cumbersome. That’s what the Digital Threshold vision could deliver, creating Agile Readiness.