The final episode of Technologically Speaking Season Two delves into the world of soft target security with S&T’s Ali Fadel. Host Dee Saini chats with Ali about what a soft target is (hint: check out the episode title), how S&T is collaborating with agencies at every level of government to keep venues and civilians safe, and promising new technologies being used to get the job done—including barriers recently deployed to Kansas City for the 2023 NFL Draft.
- At 22:24 Ali Fadel mentions the acronym “TRL,” which stands for “Technology Readiness Level.”
- Feature Article: Software Suite Will Harden Defenses for Soft Targets
- CISA News Release: Public-Private Partners Huddle to Tackle Security at the 88th Annual NFL Draft
- News Release: DHS S&T Seeks Solutions for Mitigating Threats to Soft Targets
- News Release: S&T Awards Funds for Developing Detection Algorithms for Securing Soft Targets
- News Release: DHS Awards Small Business for Soft Target Security Solutions
- Physical Security Program
- Critical Infrastructure Security & Resilience Research (CISRR) Program
- Securing Surface Transportation
- S&T Surface Transportation Program Fact Sheet
- Recorded on: February 1, 2023, and May 22, 2023
Host: Deepak Saini, Media Strategist
Guest: Ali Fadel, Program Manager, Soft Target Security
[00:00] Dave: This is Technologically Speaking, the official podcast for the Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, or S&T, as we call it. Join us as we meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe.
[00:00:15] Deepak: Hi. Welcome to this episode of Technologically Speaking. I'm your host, Deepak or Dee Sani. Today we're going to talk about soft targets. Anytime you're at an open location, like a major sporting event or a concert, perhaps you're strolling by your local farmer's market or taking public transportation, you're in a soft target. And our guest today has the important job of organizing efforts around the security and resilience of soft targets in crowded places across the entire country. Ali Fadel is the Soft Target Security program manager here at the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. Welcome Ali.
[00:00:53] Ali Fadel: Hey, thanks for having me.
[00:00:54] Deepak: Yeah, we're glad to have you. Alright, let's start right off the top. We want to get to know you a little bit. How long have you been here at S&T?
[00:01:02] Ali Fadel: So, I've been at S&T since 2012 in various positions. I've worked in systems engineering. I've worked in the Office of Enterprise Services. And now I'm heading up the soft target security program.
[00:01:14] Deepak: What led you to a career in soft target security?
[00:01:18] Ali Fadel: I was really drawn to the problem set. I found the complexity of solving, high throughput screening, without compromising the speed of commuter traffic intriguing. Additionally, I'm a husband, a father, and want to do everything I can to ensure the venues we attend are safe. Rhe mission space offers me the opportunity not only to find solutions that secure, my own family, but families of everyone that use mass transit and visit venues that draw a large crowd.
[00:01:45] ] Deepak: That's such a good point to make Ali, because a lot of the work that we do, you're right, we do it not only for the general public, but our families and the people we really love and care about are a part of that general public too as well. Walk me through the concept of soft targets.
[00:02:03] Ali Fadel: Well, soft target a venue, any place where people gather, that does not have a hardened security protocol. Think of your metro stations, your malls, your schools, your arenas, even something as small as your neighborhood festival where you go in, for the most part, unchecked or very lightly screened. Think of multiple people being able to enter an area where people congregate, without having to stand in line, for any type of, security posture check-in and that gives a broad overview of what is a target or a soft target in this case.
[00:02:41] Deepak: What are some of the specific threats to soft targets?
[00:02:44] Ali Fadel: I would say look at the attack at the Ariana Grande concert, the bombing attack there, the mass attack on the underground in London, the, the active shooter, at the MGM, there's a multitude of areas, the attack at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. I believe that was about four or five years ago. that was a smaller venue. but, any place where people congregate.
[00:03:09] Deepak: That sounds like one of the most difficult missions to accomplish. And you know, you're the man tasked with the job. How do you even attempt to approach something like that?
[00:03:21] Ali Fadel: I would say it's the holy grail of being able to resolve, security with, privacy concerns being maintained and being able to. not impede the flow of traffic. Yes, think of a mass transit venue, a again, and it is the throughput is 10 times that of your busiest aviation model. Really, it comes down to, working with our component customers, the, public, the end user operators to find out where they need the assistance and where we can help. From there, we get to work with, the R&D in order to find scalable solutions, that accomplish this mission.
[00:04:02] Deepak: Ali, can you walk us through some of the different types of soft target, security mechanisms that you use to filter through the different modes in which people travel or get through from place to.
[00:04:16] Ali Fadel: Sure. we utilize a layered security architecture that does not impede upon, traffic. When I speak of throughput, I'm speaking of the flow of traffic naturally without having to stand in line. Think of yourself, you're going to the ballgame, you take the metro and, you go through the turnstiles. If there was a hardened security architecture, it'd be more like an airport and you would never make it to your ballgame. In this case, we utilize methods of algorithm, forensics video, microwave imaging, magnetometers, all working in sync through a user operator platform that security individuals can actively screen without impeding upon that traffic or, causing delay to the schedule and make sure that commerce moves. These are different ways that we do tackle this type of problem.
[00:05:12] Deepak: That's really interesting. So you talked about different mitigations that can be classified as soft target security, like metal detectors, physical barriers like concrete barricades. And then I also want to touch on surveillance systems. You know, we've issued a number of solicitations for soft targets through our Silicon Valley innovation program. One specific solicitation we issued last year asked industry to automate video surveillance using artificial intelligence to help protect more people in crowded places. Now looking at the bigger picture, Ali, harnessing AI to monitor people is rapidly advancing. So how are these latest technological advances like this, helping your team make more of an impact when it comes to protecting people?
[00:05:57] Ali Fadel: Yeah, I do recall that, I am the program manager over it. And what we are looking for within that solicitation is a mechanism to utilize existing cameras in a layered architecture that we can plug in through the existing video management system that will be able to tag, track and, give a real time alert to, suspicious persons or baggage. The idea is to be able to real-time alert to the security personnel, any suspicious behavior. Think of a left behind bag, to be able to alert that something is being set and has not moved for a certain timeframe. Be able to look back, see who put that there, where they went and where they are in the system currently.
[00:06:46] Deepak: I'm curious though, when you're out and about in your personal life, do you find yourself scanning for soft target security?
[00:06:54] Ali Fadel: The funny thing is, I do. I look at camera placement. I wonder what the video management system is behind it. Whether there's an algorithm detecting, tagging, myself or the items I'm carrying, where the security office is that's viewing me. And, and sometimes even the definition of the camera. It is interesting to walk into one retail place versus another, versus an open architecture and the placement where it is, and you wonder where the, where the overall data is going and what's the technology behind it.
[00:07:27] Deepak: I'd like to talk about what are some examples of S&T success stories in your scope? Any technologies, also, we've transitioned?
[00:07:35] Ali Fadel: Yeah, so we're using the FOVEA tool suite, which is the, forensics optical video exploitation analysis tool, within the Washington Area Transit Authority and our partners right now at WMATA are operating this and using it for a couple of tools that we have in this suite, which are the person search capability and the look back analysis.
[00:07:57] Deepak: This was developed for us by M I T Lincoln Labs.
[00:07:59] Ali Fadel: It consists of five analytic tools. The video summarization, the person search capabilities. The analytic tools acts as a force multiplier by greatly reducing the time and burden on the operators and automating their searches within the video.
[00:08:15] Deepak: Oh, that's awesome.
[00:08:16] Ali Fadel: With video analytics, searches are completed in a fraction of the time and free up that security personnel to do other tasks while the tool sifts through the data of what it is they want to look for. In this case, FOVEA's capabilities has a video summarization tool. So, it, it can transform really long video into summary clips depending on what it is the security personnel has of interest. It has a jump back capability so it can automatically jump back to an object to find out when it was placed someplace. Let's say somebody sat down at a bench and put down a bag and we want to find out when they did that.
[00:08:58] Deepak: Oh, wow.
[00:08:59] Ali Fadel: We can reconstruct a path of an individual or an object, and it can be utilized across multiple cameras, within the system that it is placed. It also has a person search capability, and this is an appearance-based search across multiple cameras. So without P I I, which is, personally identifiable information. So it uses, different methods in order to go across those multiple cameras to find that person and I find that very, rewarding to know that this type of tool has been used in this case. We also recently transitioned the SEPT portal. And this portal is in use by our regional security personnel over at CISA and, they use it for event planning and, SEAR three through five, analysis of given venues and, assist local and state personnel in securing those areas.
[00:10:00] Deepak: I see what you mean.
[00:10:01] Ali Fadel: The special event planning tool, it's internal to DHS CISA that we transitioned this to. It has numerous standalone and integrated tools with a comprehensive security picture. It has a protection planning, visualization and assessment tool, a barrier damage assessment module and what this does is it assists the event planner to estimate the effects of the vehicle borne improvised explosive device on perimeter barriers. It also has a blast standoff application. This provides a rapid calculation of the recommended separation distance between a typical special event asset and a blast attack.
[00:10:39] Think of a vehicle borne IED or a person borne IED and this will assist with that separation. A serpentine barrier app is also part of this and think of a serpentine barrier as a bunch of jersey walls that are set up in order to make a car slow down and S through. Think of your cones, and that slows down a vehicle as it approaches any place that is designated as a target. And it calculates that distance between barriers and how you should lay it out. And then there's a barrier separation selection app. And this provides rapid process for selecting the appropriate type of barrier, the performance rating, and can be adjusted based on the anticipated threat that you're looking for or trying to protect.
[00:11:24] Deepak: Do you mind just quickly diving into how that works?
[00:11:27] Ali Fadel: This tool, it is a web-based tool. You input the parameters and is fast algorithm working in order to give you both a visual written and mapping of any venue and how to protect that venue with these applications
[00:11:45] Deepak: That's really great to hear that we're developing the tools and processes and helpful resources for components and other like-minded agencies to be able to use. Do you mind just quickly diving into the SEAR rating system and how that works?
[00:12:01] Ali Fadel: SEAR in itself is a special event rating system. It is categorized between one through five. And what happens is, any event that is being planned and turned into DHS operations, goes through a process of evaluation where the venue is, who's going to be there, how many people. And it is offered a rating between one and five, one being the most high level, think of one as the Pope visiting Washington, DC and five being something as simple as, the local garlic festival. Now, events one and two, those receive the most support. They're going to receive that federal funding, with regards to federal, local, state officials all working together. And your three through five are usually left to the municipalities, and state officials to work. As you can see, most of your very secured events are going to be those one and two, and then really three through five is the focus because those are the ones that are harder to secure.
[00:13:09] Deepak: That's great. We have a weighting system like that we work within, because then it helps all of the players involved know exactly how to approach each type of event. What would you say has been the impact of S&T's soft target security?
[00:13:24] Ali Fadel: I would say the impact of the FOVEA tool suite that has been used by WMATA cutting time and freeing up video operators while the videos being analyzed is one. And going back and saying that the development of the Special Event Planning Tools used by CISA to coordinate comprehensive security plan with local authority and authorities and event planners at special events like concerts, parades, and so forth is another one.
[00:13:53] Deepak: And The N F L draft, huge deal, right? Like football season's over. But it doesn't mean that like the hard work is done right for the next upcoming season. And I understand that S&T and DHS as a whole had a pretty big role to play. Talk to me a little bit about how did we even get involved in the first place?
[00:14:12] Ali Fadel: Oh yeah. So, what ended up happening is our friends over at CISA Office of Bombing Prevention had a need with a couple prototypes that I'm working on over at the Army Corps of Engineers right now. And these prototypes are physical barriers. The NFL reached out to us asking us to assist in protecting the site over at Kansas City, Union Station. And, we reviewed the site map and found that two of our prototypes would've been perfect for this, since this was really an outdoor event. The first one that we deployed was a prototype, that we call RAPID, and it's really, it stands for the Ready Armor Protection for Instant Deployment. And what it is it's actually an accordion light security wall that quickly turns into a physical barrier with ballistic protection in an urban environment. And when expanded for use, it can and actually will provide ballistic and fragmentation protection, intrusion protection, and it will deny line of sight. RAPID served as both a blast wall and a ballistic wall that was concealed with screen print. And it protected the stage and the occupants, and the crowd from any type of, leave behind improvised explosive device or a hostile actor with a weapon. the second unit that we had was the deployable, expedient traffic entry regulator, which we call DETER. This is an active, vehicle barrier. And what it does is it serves as an expedited access control solution to protect critical assets, soft targets from vehicular attack. And what it did was it denied vehicles an easy entry into the area of the NFL draft where over 350,000 people, over the three days came together for this event.
[00:16:09] Deepak: That's a lot of people in one space. How does that paint the overall just picture of importance for you, for CISA for all the other folks involved to be able to execute this to the best of your might?
[00:16:22] Ali Fadel: It was really a great team effort on all three parties coming together for this, along with the N F L, a lot of communication, a lot of, teamwork in order to get these barriers put into place where they were most effective. We got a lot of great feedback from local first responders as well as other federal agencies that were at the draft. And we also got a lot of data on these, prototypes so that way we can better enhance them for homeland security use.
[00:16:53] Deepak: Now the most important question, I'm sure even though you were there for a specific purpose and reason and your entire team was, did you get to watch any of the draft? Like I'm sure your family members, that's probably what they want to know more rather than what you went there for.
[00:17:08] Ali Fadel: So it was outside. It was an open air, atmosphere. And yes, there, there were times to be able to walk around. We were manning a couple of barriers that we had to oversee. So we did take shifts as we did hold these prototypes in order to be able to move them or reconfigure them as first responders needed at that time. But I did see a little bit of the draft, more through walking through the crowd than standing, so to speak.
[00:17:36] Deepak: Was there any particular moment, or learning opportunity that stuck out with you from this experience?
[00:17:42] Ali Fadel: Yes. So the great thing about where we put DETER, which is, which was the hostile vehicle mitigation barrier. We had a large contingency of Kansas City Metropolitan Police Department vehicles and personnel there. And, we spent a lot of time with these frontline operators and officers discussing better ways to re-engineer and improve this barrier that they found a lot of value in having it where it was, their comments to us. Really gave us a different perspective versus the program management perspective and the engineering perspective. They gave us real life use case that we were able to take back. And now we are looking at, several different options to make enhancements to what's already been done.
[00:18:31] Deepak: That's great. a nice real-world event, especially on a national, let's be honest, in. international platform and then you got some really good key learnings out of that, that will help inform future activities as well.
[00:18:43] Ali Fadel: Absolutely. It was, it was, a lot of fun to do this event. I do look forward to the next one as well.
[00:18:50] Deepak: I can see the type of difference your work is making. what do you find the most interesting about what you do?
[00:18:56] Ali Fadel: I would say the diversity of the program and all that's under my umbrella. The work on video algorithm, planning tool development, using microwave technology, creating a layered screened architecture, working on standoff chemical narcotics detections to name a few. Really, working with experts in the public and private sectors to best find those innovative and scalable solutions that can be implemented in our problem.
[00:19:25] Deepak: So not only just me, but I believe a lot of our listeners are really expanding their knowledge about soft target security. Is there something most people might not know or appreciate about the type of work that you do, that you wish they would just get or know?
[00:19:41] Ali Fadel: Oh, wow. I guess the magnitude appreciated for securing such a range of locations and the need to maintain that personal privacy and the innovative solutions it requires in order not to impede folks upon their daily routine is really something that takes a lot of effort to get to.
[00:20:02] Deepak: That's a really good point. Privacy is at the heart of everything that we do, and I think that sometimes gets lost in translation. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges related to soft target security?
[00:20:14] Ali Fadel: It's, diverse, wide ranging soft target locations from public transportation sites to concert venues and local mass gatherings. It's disparate, the security systems safety posture. Threat potentials and screening capabilities. the high throughput, public transportation, as I keep saying, has 10 times the passenger throughput than most, the most complex aviation model with no fixed screening checkpoints anywhere. And the limited oversight, soft targets, generally consist of privately controlled infrastructure with limited federal oversight and security regulations in place.
[00:20:55] Deepak: That leads to my next question. why is a program like this necessary and what is the threat landscape like right now for you?
[00:21:04] Ali Fadel: It's forever with us. It's always in the news. The news cycle is 24 7 and, events happen at the speed of light. As, you harden targets, your bad actors and attackers look for areas that are unsecured and it becomes more appealing, and it really is a continuous cycle.
[00:21:23] Deepak: You know, Ali, when the rest of us are out and about, we don't scan or look for the types of things that you, in your career have been trained to look out for. When we're out in open locations and, mostly unprotected places, what can the average person do to better protect themselves when they're in a soft target location?
[00:21:41] Ali Fadel: For the most part, I would say, go about your daily life without fear. There are, measures in place around you, but I would also say to always be, aware of your surroundings and make those plans in case of an emergency.
[00:21:54] Deepak: That makes sense. I know for me, anytime I go somewhere, the immediate thing I do is look for where the exits are.
[00:22:00] Ali Fadel: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Just be aware of where you are.
[00:22:03] Deepak: I'm curious what new and exciting things is your program focusing on right now? Or is there anything coming up on the horizon you'd like to share?
[00:22:12] Ali Fadel: Oh, wow. I am, I'm excited for all the activities that are maturing within the program. We have a standoff chemical, narcotics, compact micro barometer that's maturing towards a T R L six or seven. And, we're on track to complete the development, to a commercial product over the next several years. Our portal that I mentioned with, the applications for our security regional providers, was transitioned recently, for use on sea level events that will assist them. And, we continue working with our mass transit partners to develop a scalable, layered security architecture that includes non-invasive screening and forensics video analytics that's both scale, scalable and mindful of that privacy. All these are continuation, but new work within the program.
[00:23:01] Deepak: I'm curious to know, when you were a kid growing up, what did you want to be? Was it anything related to this or what was it and then what kind of led you down this path?
[00:23:11] Ali Fadel: My undergraduate and graduate were in finance and quantitative finance , and then I got, I went in a systems engineering, I was a banker years, years back. I've had multiple careers. I've been very fortunate to have multiple careers in one life, and not too many people can really say that. So I always saw myself, as a, wolf of Wall Street, way back when. And so that, that's obviously much different than my mission today. And my enjoyment comes through different deliverables and milestones than my previous life.
[00:23:43] Deepak: That's a very diverse background. What advice do you have for folks that feel like they're younger and entering a similar type of trajectory? Because I do Ali, I feel like it's normal, right? We change as we grow our professional and personal aspirations change depending on where we're at in life and it's okay to do that. And look at where you ended up and now you're a public servant, protecting the everyday people. What advice do you have for folks that kind of feel like they're on a similar sort of trajectory and not really sure what's on the other end of the horizon?
[00:24:17] Ali Fadel: You'll get out of life the effort that you put in. I've always believed that you can be anything you want, if you put the time, effort, and energy into it. I'm not saying that it doesn't come without struggle and that it doesn't come without a heartache or hardship or other personal failures. But that success will occur if you keep added and believe. And as long as your plan is and methodology are both sane and auditable.
[00:24:46] Deepak: Oh, for sure.
[00:24:47] Ali Fadel: I, I would say, you keep going.
[00:24:48] Deepak: Who are you outside of this job? what hobbies do you have? Totally unrelated to your work at S&T.
[00:24:55] Ali Fadel: Oh. I spend a lot of times with my kids, with their activities, whether that be soccer, my daughter's orchestra, I help with their schoolwork, my son's baseball. I'm an avid hockey fan, go Caps. And I, I've always been, a fan of traveling, to different parts of the world. I would say I'm a culture junkie. I, I really enjoy learning about different cultures.
[00:25:14] Deepak: So this year, DHS is celebrating its 20 year anniversary. And S&T has been there along for the ride for these 20 years. As you and your team look forward to what's on the horizon for perhaps the next 20 for S&T, how does it feel being a part of this bigger sort of mission?
[00:25:38] Ali Fadel: I'm honored to be here. I have what I believe is, the best job in the world. I'm really honored to be part of S&T, its mission space, DHS as a whole. I've been here for over a decade, and I've watched S&T and DHS mature since its inception back in 2002.
[00:25:57] And, I look forward to the next 20 years to see all the accomplishments that the great people here, will for sure get to. And I'm really interested to see what new technologies we will be able to, look forward to as these. Technologies, get transitioned and, get out in the marketplace here.
[00:26:18] Deepak: Yeah. I mean the future is here tomorrow.
[00:26:20] Ali Fadel: Exactly.
[00:26:21] Deepak: Ali, thank you so much for being here. I've learned so much about what you do and soft target security, and, we're really grateful that you're a part of S&T and we can't wait to continue seeing the great work that you and your team built. Thank you.
[00:26:35] Ali Fadel: Dee, thank you for having me. It's a pleasure being here.
[00:26:38] Deepak: This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S & T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS SciTech. Thanks for listening.