Sep 11 3:51 PM

Post-9/11 security boom spells jobs and controversy

ARLINGTON, Virginia — Hunched over a line of MacBooks in an open office, tieless entrepreneurs, clad in blue jeans tap out lines of code in a scene that seems more familiar to Northern California than Northern Virginia.

Kevin Lenane is one of them, founding his own video analysis firm two years ago in an effort to tap into the nation’s booming video surveillance sector, which has more than doubled over the past two decades.  

‘It really has changed … what you can do with a technical degree, what you can do with a military background, what you can do with a security clearance.’

Allan Friedman

cybersecurity analyst

"So what we do is we take video and we turn it into data," said the Massachusetts native, who works inside Uber Offices in Arlington, where several young business owners lease office space and focus on everything from big data and security, to green energy.   

His company, Veenome, uses complex algorithms to analyze thousands of videos per day, scanning everything from drone footage to clips uploaded on YouTube.

“Let’s say you’re looking at Syria and you're looking at 10,000 videos a day, and you're seeing the presence of this particular weapon is 3 percent throughout the month of June,” he explained. “And then all of a sudden in July we see a jump to 7 percent. Well, you could watch those videos all day and you'd never see that jump."

Though Veenome has largely been geared toward commercial purposes, helping businesses analyze the impact of their video advertisements online, his kind of technology is drawing the attention of defense and intelligence agencies across the region.

“It’s not that our detection is super advanced, it’s that we can do a lot of it very, very quickly, and very, very accurately,” he said.

The Wesleyan grad added that his government clients account for only about 20 percent of his business, though noted that “we’ve got a few possible contracts that could drastically change that ratio.” 

Those claims could not be independently verified, and Lenane declined to identify which federal agencies he was referencing. Though he added that since 2011, his technology has been used to analyze drone footage.

Measuring slight changes over the course of several months to suss out meaningful insights is “what’s really interesting about what we do with security,” he said.   

And in the years since the September 11 attacks, the security market is booming.

The government spends nearly six times what it did in 2001 in the fight against terrorism, fueling a growing security apparatus that has added thousands of private contractors to its payrolls, with new levels of funding for both legacy security firms and newfangled startups.

Homeland security funding totaled more than half a trillion dollars over the past decade, providing new jobs for those with specialized skills.

Police and private security personel monitor security cameras at the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative on April 23, 2013 in New York City.
2013 Getty Images

"Since September 11, there's been a steady growth,” said Allan Friedman, a cybersecurity analyst and fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.  “It really has changed… what you can do with a technical degree, what you can do with a military background, what you can do with a security clearance."

In places like Arlington, a highly educated workforce is taking advantage. The county’s median annual household income is just shy of $100,000, while more than 70 percent of its population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, with key access to federal powerbrokers.

In recent years, an assortment of new firms have literally changed the landscape of Northern Virginia, where a patchwork of gleaming new office buildings house workers and executives that range from cybersecurity analysts to biotech engineers.

"It was a very different place than it was 10 years ago,” said Jennifer Ives, director of business development at Arlington Economic Development. “There are new buildings, new people, and new ideas." 

But it's not just government doing the spending.

The private sector adds more than $280 billion to the market, according to recent study by ASIS International and the Institute of Finance and Management.

And more than a decade after 2001 attacks, surveillance cameras now dot American cityscapes, offering real-time coverage and analysis, while also raising new questions about the level of privacy Americans should now expect.

"American companies have basically been compelled to work with the defense establishment and intelligence community to provide critical intelligence for the NSA, potentially at the expense of their own interests," said Friedman. 

This summer, The Guardian and The Washington Post reported that the National Security Administration (NSA) has been monitoring Internet traffic, collecting data from tens of millions of Verizon subscribers. 

That level of snooping comes at cost.

Last month, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reported that the short-term business costs surrounding the NSA leaks account for as much as $35 billion in lost revenue.

And as the demand for security grows, analysts say the debate over privacy will likely intensify.

David Ariosto with some reporting from Rima Abdelkader

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