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Security giants earn huge windfalls from ‘surveillance-industrial complex’

In run-up to 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Panasonic and other multinational corporations find big market for security

As 36,500 people run the Tokyo Marathon on Sunday, Japanese authorities will deploy unprecedented security for the annual event. A record 90 police officers, since last year armed with spycams, will jog alongside competitors, and a new unit will debut 10 recently acquired interceptor drones, designed to take down rogue flying devices, on Feb. 28.

Vigilance at marathons has been stepped up globally since the 2013 attack in Boston. But officials in Japan are upgrading security strategies and infrastructure with a bigger occasion in mind: the 2020 Olympic Games. Although it’s over four years away, organizers are increasingly anxious about myriad threats, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, North Korea, hackers and environmental protesters. Last April an activist allegedly landed a drone carrying traces of Fukushima radioactive material on the prime minister’s office roof, in protest over energy policies.

“From the beginning, we had very high interest in security issues,” said Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of the 2020 organizing committee, through an interpreter. “If something happens ... any terrorism … could be the failure of the Tokyo Olympic Games.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher for such prestigious global events, from sporting contests to political summits. The measures underway in Japan fit a well-established pattern in which host cities and countries spend exorbitantly on security services and products. Often among the big winners of this trend: domestic security companies, specialized technology firms and a handful of multinationals, which collectively offer everything from military-grade drones and sophisticated software to manpower and innovative schemes. In effect, these major events have created a lucrative sector for the global security industry.

“World special events are a risky business with a potential pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said Stu Smith, a security consultant and former police officer involved in safety operations at world events such as the Olympics. “The prices the event organizers have to pay for a company to deliver in that risk environment are, simply put, premium and breathtaking. For most people, they cannot possibly imagine the complexity and the business risk.”

Staggering security budgets at recent events, in places as varied as Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro, can prove highly profitable for the biggest firms able to win and deliver on the most coveted contracts, say analysts. But these companies must operate at vast scale, under immovable deadlines and strict penalties for failure, which can cost up to 125 percent of the contract.

“Outsourcing is necessary, as there are only really a handful of people that know what they are doing when it comes to Olympic security,” said Raymond Mey, a former senior FBI agent who helped manage security at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. “If you do not bring in those with significant experience, you will waste tremendous time and money.”

Multinationals like General Electric, IBM, Honeywell, Siemens, Panasonic and LG earned slices of the record $6.5 billion spent by Beijing on security for the 2008 games, according to Bloomberg. Four years later, the London organizing committee and British government collectively spent nearly a billion pounds ($1.5 billion) on venue security, utilizing private contractors widely. G4S, one of the biggest companies in this realm, won the leading 284 million pounds ($409 million) physical security contract (though its failure to provide enough guards resulted in penalties and an eventual $136 million loss).

At the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, which had a record-breaking budget reportedly over $51 billion, Russian, Israeli and Austrian companies were among those that provided security under contracts totaling $1.1 billion, Intelligence Online reported. This included Russia’s Elsys Corp. rolling out its vibraImage analytic computer system, which measures tiny body muscle vibrations for signs of someone who could pose an imminent threat.

‘Skyrocketed’ costs

Ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the Brazilian government spent 1.9 billion reais ($855 million) on security which, alongside paying for military and police personnel, included the purchase of equipment and weaponry. Elbit Systems won a Brazilian air force contract to supply a Hermes 900 drone equipped with an advanced intelligence-gathering system, adding to a fleet of drones the company previously sold the country. “[They] will carry safety and security missions in the 2014 FIFA World Cup games,” the company stated at the time. A representative declined to detail the value of the contract, citing client confidentiality.

Among other contracts awarded: another Israeli firm, Risco, provided security management and solutions for a new arena in Cuiabá; a Chinese company, Nuctech, installed 90 X-ray inspection systems and 600 pieces of equipment at stadiums; and U.S. firm iRobot Corp. won a $7.2 million contract for 30 robots capable of defusing bombs.

“It’s a highly competitive field,” said Robert Chacon, a former FBI agent who worked on counterterrorism at the Salt Lake City and 2004 Athens Olympics and is now a security consultant based in Brazil. “And it definitely is a cost that has skyrocketed.”

Industry revenues identified by researchers Memoori Business Intelligence give a sense of the scale. The global production of physical security products totaled $27.25 billion annually to the end of September 2015. Year-on-year increases are over 9 percent since 2011, it reported. Video surveillance and access-control gadgets account for three-quarters of the market. Noting the continual threat from terrorism, crime and theft, the authors confidently predicted, “The only factor that can stunt the growth of the market is the supply side.”

Venture capitalists buying security companies is another sign of industry profitability. Among the latest examples: Nice Systems, a global software company headquartered in Israel that won contracts for the Sochi Olympics and World Cup in Brazil, sold its physical security arm to Battery Ventures last year for up to $100 million. (The companies declined to detail the value of those contracts.)

“We’re seeing an unprecedented flow of capital from private equity firms into the security space, and I think that signals that this industry will continue to see expansion,” Merlin Guilbeau, the executive director of the Electronic Security Association, told a trade publication this month.

Dave Tyson, the chairman of industry advocate ASIS International, who was the chief security officer for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, said the security business has diversified beyond the traditional three G’s — guns, guards and gates — to provide an array of technology. When it comes to big events, a small but prestigious slice of the overall action, this means the pie can still be carved into plenty of pieces. In Vancouver, he recalled, organizers awarded a single “monster contract” for security; that company then subcontracted work to smaller outfits. “There are no real global firms that do it all,” he said. “It’s always a compilation.”

Which companies win the security and other contracts depends on who’s hosting, according to Carol Evans, a senior program manager at R&D nonprofit Battelle, which has worked on Olympic projects. Some countries like Japan and the U.K. — which awarded nearly all its approximately $12 billion worth of 2012 Olympic-related contracts to British-based companies — favor homegrown players. But in other regions, such as the Americas and the Middle East, where local firms may lack the required specialization, big conglomerates can utilize events industry contacts and extensive know-how to prevail. “In this arena it is all about reputation and delivery,” said Evans.

‘We fear everything’

With the Olympics heading to Panasonic’s home country in 2020, the multinational is eyeing lucrative new contracts. As one of 11 worldwide Olympic partners — the highest level of sponsorship — it primarily provides digital audio-video equipment for the games. At its Tokyo showroom, the company is already displaying technology tailored for 2020 that it hopes to sell to organizers. This includes two products at the core of the security industry: a credit-card-like access pass with built-in facial recognition features, called wonder Japan pass, and a total surveillance system connecting tens of thousands of cameras and microphones with a network capable of utilizing sophisticated recognition software.

Masahiro Ido, the director of Panasonic's Olympics division, told Reuters in 2014 the company is targeting 150 billion yen ($1.3 billion) in sales involving games-related products. A representative declined to provide the financial details of its current Olympic contracts, citing nondisclosure agreements.

Tokyo’s winning Olympics bid projected 18.7 billion yen ($165 million) in security spending on and around the games, but the budgets are under review and are likely to rise considerably. In October organizers selected two domestic companies, Sohgo Security Services and Secom, as partners in a second domestic tier of sponsorship. The deal means the companies are paying to be sponsors and are paid providers of security services. A local organizing committee representative said it would not disclose the financial details of the partnership agreement until after the games; both companies declined to comment.

Secrecy can surround security and other contracts for big events like the World Cup and Olympics, depending on the host. Numerous companies refused to detail the value of such contracts to Al Jazeera, citing nondisclosure clauses stipulated by the clients, which range from local organizing committees to national governments to other firms.

The “Global Corruption Report,” a 398-page analysis of sports corruption by Transparency International released this week, identifies major sporting events as particularly vulnerable to widespread corruption. It calls on international sporting organizations to require host countries to detail all major contracts and expenditures through an open data platform. “[They], as event owners, must ensure that the process is one of integrity, from the prebidding phase to the closing ceremony and far beyond,” it reads.

Emmanuelle Moreau, the head of media relations at the International Olympic Committee, said security at the Olympic Games is the responsibility of the local authorities and did not respond to questions about nondisclosure agreements with Olympic contractors.

Increasingly intrusive surveillance technologies and militarized police and public spaces — exemplified by the placement of missile batteries on apartment buildings for the London Games — have become the hallmark of big events, with serious implications for civil society and privacy, say critics. “The tools and powers police obtain supposedly to deal with the one-time special event have a way of sticking around forever,” said Kade Crockford, a director at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The Sunday Times of London reported this month that police in the city continue to operate one of the biggest surveillance camera systems in the world, set up to provide details of drivers’ movements during the 2012 games, in breach of national rules. Meanwhile, human rights advocates claim invasive security installed for Beijing 2008 has been used by authorities ever since for political repression.

Critics see the security industry as benefiting from a disproportionate climate of fear, which reaches its peak at global gatherings. Gus Hosein, the executive director at Privacy International, believes the awe and pageantry around the occasions hinder constraints needed on policymakers. “Around large events, we also see the surveillance-industrial complex eagerly seeking to be fed,” he said. “It’s when our understanding of risk is weakest, our budgets near limitless, when we fear everything and everyone coming from afar.”

Industry advocates counter that threats are real and complacency is dangerous. “There is evidence very clearly of people trying to do things that were thwarted or defended against by good security practices,” said Tyson.

Chacon admitted that success in security — essentially nothing bad happening — can be a hard win to sell to the public, given the enormous expenditures. Finding the balance is hard, he added. “Nobody wants to be the [one] that cuts back and says, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ because then it’s on [that person] when something happens. And people are so risk averse.”

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