Evading Surveillance on Reality TV

In a world driven by technological advancements that include mobile monitoring and 24/7 surveillance, the idea of disconnecting from Big Brother seems relatively impossible. But, two ordinary men attempt to lurk in the shadows as they try to evade a team of expert trackers armed with the most sophisticated technology on a quest to win $1 million in a one-hour, action-adventure, reality crusade called Off the Grid: Million Dollar Manhunt, which premieres on Dec. 8, 2011 at 11 p.m. (ET) on the History Channel.

It’s a novel concept; stay out of sight for one day and win $1 million. But, this may sound easier than it looks.

With over 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States, the average person appears on these screens several times a day – not including every credit/debit card transaction, social network page and cellular device pinpointing a person’s location.

Show producers Justin Hockberg and Charlie Ebersol of The Hochberg Ebersol Company (THE Co., for short); known for “branded entertainment” and proficient “product placement” spoke with Security Products magazine about the sophisticated technological manhunt.

“This is like a summer blockbuster made into a reality competition show,” Ebersol said.

History Channel approached the duo over a year ago after much lauded success from the terrorist-tracking NBC show The Wanted. The producers developed Off the Grid over the course of nearly six months, and shot the entire show within six hours in one day.

“History Channel wanted it to be connected to everyday Americans to see how they can really understand how these technologies and tactics are being used in everyday life. I think with all the newspaper articles about privacy and Facebook, people have a sense that Big Brother is out there.”

The cat-and-mouse game kicks off with Dan (an environmental consultant) and Scott (a truck driver), best friends in their 40s, planted in the middle of downtown Los Angeles armed with only their cell phones and credit cards – comparable to the everyday American’s pocket full of goodies.

“It’s never been done before,” Hochberg said.

The elite team hunting the best buds is led by master tracker, Kevin Reeve, owner of onPoint Tactical, LLC, a scouting, tracking and survival school, responsible for training some of the nation’s top U.S. military and law enforcement agencies including Navy SEALs, FBI agents, Secret Service agents and U.S. Marshals.

In preparation for the show, Ebersol tested Reeve’s training methods and participated in one of his three-day evasion courses. Day three involves a “black bag” mission, and he was dropped 12 miles outside of Seattle with the challenge of finding his way back into the city within eight hours without getting caught by a team of special ops.

“He trains them on how to disappear in an urban environment, as well as how to escape and evade capture,” Ebersol said.

With a million dollar prize, the producers wanted only the top tracking experts in the industry and paid close attention to details when searching for a select crew. Reeve’s Off the Grid team includes a former NSA computer technician, former Navy SEAL and a hacker, who at age 12 successfully hacked a major telecom company.

“We looked for the best of the best,” said Hochberg. “We create a game board  that is really based on a ‘war game’ based on a couple of different intelligence agencies that do similar tasks for their agents. The area is four miles by four miles of downtown Los Angeles; at any given time there are a quarter million and a half million people out on the streets doing stuff, so they have to stay within that area, but it’s a massive area.”

As Dan and Scott plot an escape from downtown Los Angeles, Kevin and his team of experts are positioned in an abandoned warehouse doubling as a command and control base, also a mobile tracking unit and SUV. The experts are only provided the names and addresses of the civilians and then have every available technology at their disposal – Internet public records, Brickhouse (a back-end technology used for identifying people online), Ostendo 180-degree video monitors, Skype and Axis PTZ dome network cameras, a thermal network camera, network video recorders and video management software positioned throughout downtown Los Angeles.

“Axis provided a mix of network cameras so the Off the Grid team – which was made up of its own production members and off-duty LAPD officers could set up a grid throughout the city and monitor the cameras from the central station,” said Domenic Locapo, Axis public relations specialist. “When selecting which cameras to provide, we looked at our HDTV-quality portfolio so that footage from the network cameras themselves could be used in the show.”

Locapo highlights the level of equipment employed showcases cutting-edge technology adopted by law enforcement and government agencies today; which includes IP-based, intelligent, high-resolution cameras.

The entire communication system was backboned by a government grade system command-and-control technology, Antares, used by the Los Angeles Police Department, FEMA and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Antares has the capabilities to interact with all levels of technology built to communicate in real time available through each tracker’s mobile device.

Congress now requires all cell phones to have geo-tracking devices built in, allowing operators and first responders to track a person down based on cellular location. The team backed into this geo-tracking system using a Trojan horse inserted into Dan and Scott’s cell phones.

The producers were hush-hush about the outcome and whether or not the contestants were able to outwit and outmaneuver Reeve’s team to win the million dollar grand prize, which Hochberg and Ebersol claim is the largest prize in cable television history. Despite the ending, the two hope to produce additional episodes of Off the Grid in different cities, but more so, that the show garners attention about the advanced level of technological monitoring and security within each facet of everyday life.

“In a digital age where everybody interacts with a computerized system or walks on the street, they are on the preverbal grid,” Ebersol said. “We created a show that shows people how extensive that is.”

View a trailer for the one-hour special here.


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