September 7, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Post-9/11 antiterror technology: A report card

This is part one of a two-part series that looks back at the five years since Sept. 11, 2001. To read the second installment, which reviews privacy and government secrecy, click here.

news analysis Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the federal government's record of adopting antiterrorism technologies has been mixed.

Puffers, chemical scanners and biometrics devices are appearing in airports. Radio-frequency chips are being inserted in U.S. passports. The U.S. Army has developed machine-gun toting robots for deployment in Iraq.

But the FBI is still struggling with computer systems that are at least half a decade out of date, Homeland Security is having similar problems with inspections of shipping containers, and it's hardly clear that RFID-equipped passports are any safer from duplication by an identity thief or enterprising member of al-Qaida.

CNET News.com has compiled a list of 10 technologies, five that should be adopted more speedily to help in homeland security efforts--and five that raise at least some privacy and security concerns. Read on for the details.

In need of support
1. Going wireless: Ever since cameras on cell phones became popular a few years ago, millions of Americans have zapped grainy snapshots back and forth wirelessly. Now the chronologically backward folks at the FBI finally are entering the 21st century too.

An FBI pilot program launched last month in Washington, D.C., and New York City is designed to outfit field agents with wireless technology. They'll be able to take digital photos of a suspect, upload the images to a broadband wireless-enabled laptop, and e-mail it off to other on-the-go agents. They, in turn, can view the suspect's image--complete with that day's garb and haircut length--on a BlackBerry handheld device.

This is hardly a novel idea, of course. But it's still a useful upgrade to the FBI's existing technology, says Frederick Brink, who's in charge of the special operations division at the FBI's New York City field office.

For the hundreds of agents now trying out the mobile technology, "they don't necessarily have to use a telephone or call in, they can access this information directly in the course of their normal duties," Brink said. The FBI's central information technology outfit would like to expand the so-called "mobility pilot program" to every FBI field office, but it has not set a timetable. As for success stories from the unwired FBI set, Brink said to check back in a month or two. But for now, he said, "the feedback is already very, very positive. In general terms, the agents love this capability."

2. Better search technology: The private sector has been years ahead of the FBI not just in wireless technology, but also in search. Internet search engines have been around since Archie in 1990, followed by the original Wandex, a Web search tool developed in 1993 at MIT.

The FBI finally got a rudimentary Web-based search tool in 2004 in the form of its Investigative Data Warehouse, or IDW. It lets users (more than 13,000 people have been approved so far) to use a single Web-based front end to comb about 650 million records--ranging from intelligence wires to terrorist watch lists to no-fly lists--across multiple government agencies, including the State Department and Homeland Security. Agents say it acts as a "one-stop shop" for wide-ranging information that takes an average of three seconds to five seconds to return results.

Unfortunately, the IDW's records aren't updated in real time. Instead, the system relies on copies of documents that must be "affirmatively uploaded into the warehouse" by participating agencies, according to an 2005 auditor's report. Depending on who's in control of the data, that can happen anywhere from daily to weekly to monthly to quarterly--although in an emergency situation, updates can be sped up to hourly, FBI Chief Information Officer Zal Azmi told reporters last week.

"Right now, we don't have that Google-like search capacity to go (directly) into databases of different agencies," Azmi acknowledged. Because "timeliness of the data is critical to us in our mission," he added, a real-time "portal" is the goal, but it is "a long way from being completed...at least a couple more years."

3. Inspecting cargo containers: Could terrorists smuggle a nuclear, biological or radiological explosive device into the U.S. by hiding it in a cargo container? There's reason to think so: 11 million cargo containers arrive at U.S. seaports each year, and only a small percentage are physically inspected by Homeland Security agents (click for PDF).

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of Homeland Security, does have a computerized modeling system that's supposed to help identify which cargo containers should be inspected based on intelligence from sources including the CIA. It's called the Automated Targeting System, or ATS, and has been deemed a failure by government auditors in a report this year (click for PDF). They concluded that Homeland Security "has not yet put key controls in place to provide reasonable assurance that ATS is effective at targeting oceangoing cargo containers with the highest risk of containing smuggled weapons of mass destruction."

Fixing ATS would be a good first step. So would making greater use of noninvasive methods of scanning containers and preventing unions from derailing security methods. The West Coast longshoremen's union prohibits its members from driving through gamma ray scanners, even though Homeland Security officers do it routinely and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the low exposure level. Union leaders won't allow members to drive through even more promising systems using neutron-based detectors either.

4. Smarter translation software: Intelligence agencies around the world continue to face a shortage of speakers of Arabic and other languages often associated with terrorist groups. Translation can also be time-consuming.

CONTINUED: Language translation tools…
Page 1 | 2 | 3

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8 comments

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Automating DNA Sweeps
I'm sure someday we'll see "sniffers" that can detect a person's DNA and instantaneously match him or her to a target list.

Shoot, you could perhaps even remotely target terrorists with miniscule drones equipped with such technology.

Problem is, just who would use it...the most famous fictional examples come from "Dune"; a powerful trade house named Harkonnen uses such technology in small "hunter/seeker" drones to kill their enemies.

Given such steller examples of business amorality as those exhibited by Skilling and Lay of Enron, Patricia Dunn of HP, the Hunt brothers in the silver market, T. Boone Pickens' current attempts to purchase and monopolize groundwater rights in Texas so he can squeeze Texas cities for an unavoidable human requirement, and on and on and on...

Well, I'd be lying if I said "I can't believe any business would ever attempt to gain some commercial advantage by eliminating a competitor or to silence a potential whistleblower using such technology"...

Paranoia? Damn, I hope so...
Posted by missingamerica (6147 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Discriminatory Remark - Smarter Translation Software...
I find it very racist, discriminatory, and anti-Islamic for you to suggest that Arabic is a language associated with terrorist groups. That was very inappropriate for you to even suggest that. Arabic is one of the most beautiful, powerful, and rich languages that existed in the past and exists today. Just because there are some crazy nuts (ie: terrorists) who happen to also speak Arabic does not mean that Arabic (or Islam) is associated with terrorism.
When Timothy Mcveigh carried out the Oklahoma City Bombing, should we then assume that English (or Christianity) is associated with terrorism?! Of course not, that would be ridiculous!!!
I can see the mass media has worked wonders on brainwashing you. I hope you can see through that, and I hope you can apologize to the thousands of readers who were offended by that comment.
Thank you for your time.
Posted by zoomy1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Wake Up And Smell The Camel Dung
[i] &very racist, discriminatory, and anti-Islamic for you to suggest that Arabic is a language associated with terrorist groups.[/i]

Reset, [b]zoomy1,[/b] and reread the section [b]4. Smarter Translation Software.[/b] I did, and saw nothing in it that was racist, discriminatory, and anti-Islamic.

The U.S. already has rapid and accurate real-time [i]Smarter English Translation Software[/i] because [i]English[/i] requires no translation into [i]English[/u] except for a few words of [i]British English[/i] into [i] American English.[/i] Clearly, the U.S. has English speaking [i]Terrorists[/i] solidly covered regarding [i]Translation Software.[/i] Have you ever heard of [i]CARNIVORE, ECHELON [/i] and the new one no one has heard of yet?

The [i]Terrorists[/i] talk, [i]Uncle Sam[/i] listens and the [i] bad word users[/i] get an early wake up call, ride in a [i]Black Helicopter[/i] and an all expense paid trip to GITMO or Leavenworth.

I expect the U.S. probably has [i]Smarter Translation Software[/i] to handle rapid and accurate real-time translation of Literary Arabic [اللغة العربية الفصحى‎ (fushā)] into American English, but for the range of localized colloquial, dialectal and regional varieties of Arabic as well as Pashtu, Somali and other languages it is another story.

Then there is [i]Farsi,[/i] the spoken language of Iran, which is not Arabic at all, but Persian. If they do not have [i]Smarter Translation Software[/i] for Farsi, it is needed.

Be the nice person that I know you are. Pull in you horns, and give Mrs. McCullaghs [i]baby boy,[/i] Declan, a little slack. JP B-)
Posted by Catgic (106 comments )
Link Flag
Politically Incorrect
It is comments like these that isolate nations, religions and people. Not the remarks of the article, but of the reader. Do most know Arabic is backwards (read right to left). And ALL languages are beautiful, not just a few. You are prejudicing your language against others. How about the reader apologizing to those that died because they DIDN'T understand why they were victims of some "crazy nut" ? It is the Arab-muslim world that needs to clean up its own. If others have to get involved and intervene, then they will do it by their rules, not yours.
Posted by Below Meigh (249 comments )
Link Flag
Five Of One, Half Dozen Minus One Of The Other
Some [anti-terror technologies] appear to be particularly useful and deserve to spread. Others raise privacy concerns and may not be all that effective.

Kudos to you, Declan, as well as to contributing reporters Anne Broache and Michael Kanellos on an insightful camels nose sniff under the anti-terror technologies tent. You all did a fine job of discussing and highlighting the key technical and societal issues associated with anti-terror technology.

Let me offer a couple of comments.

About 15 years ago, the Saudi monarch and ruler at that time, King Fahd, took action to spend multi-millions of Riyals [& Dollars] to have Saudi Royal International Airports upgraded with the same kinds of anti-terrorist chemical sniffing, backscatter X-ray, neutron-based baggage/cargo, video screening, detection, surveillance and monitoring equipment technologies you discussed in and have woven into your article. It seems that, at least publicly, the Saudi Arabs were acutely aware of the [i]Osama Bin Lada Arab Terrorist Threat[/i] well over a decade before we were in the U.S.

Regarding [i]Registered Traveler Certification - Clearance[/i] or [i]Clear" Registered Traveler[/i] [ <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.flyclear.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.flyclear.com/</a> ], as you wrote [commercial] air travelers are gradually separating into a two-class hierarchy&

If a citizen [i]voluntarily donates[/i] $80 [http://$79.95|http://$79.95], along with submitting an in depth chronological, medical and behavioral personal history accompanied by their fingerprints and personal biological information that results in a clear security background check, they can sail through airport security around the [i]Security Screening Slog[/i] rope-lines. No more expending mega-minutes standing queued up waiting in long lines in front of a TSA screening station, time that once used to be spent in genteel relaxation in the Airlines Club-Lounge. No more having to drag your bags and slog along with a [i]Cheshire Smile[/i] as you listen to someones [i]Aunt Martha[/i] telling you how pleased she is with all the TSA and airport security  even if it takes a little longer.

It is not likely that [i]voluntarily donating[/i] $80 a year to become a [i]Registered Traveler[/i] and submitting to an ongoing security background check and follow-on surveillance, monitoring and tracking of your personal life style, behavior and habits will remain truly [i]voluntary[/i] for much longer. At some point in the near future, as the governments Total Information Awareness citizen database system matures and gains reliable nationwide real-time capacity and capability, everyone who wants to travel will be required to have a valid [i]REAL ID[/i] with a current [i]Clear" Registered Traveler Certification  Endorsement.[/i]

No one, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, shall be able to travel save he or she that has a [i]REAL ID[/i] with [i]Clear" Registered Traveler Certification  Endorsement.[/i] JP B-)

Joseph Poliakon
Space Coast, Florida
Posted by Catgic (106 comments )
Reply Link Flag
SWANsat - Going Wireless
Worldwide satellite internet broadband delivered to/from a blackberry-type handset is an amazing leap forward. The US Government will own the power plant that drives the communications payload. Capacity, they say, is 600 million connections per satellite.

swansat.com &#38; iostarcorp.com
Posted by swansat_kaching (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I hope Americans realise
that they are on a fast track to a high-tech police state, the likes
of which would have made Adolf Hitler blush with envy. I hope
you good people will intervene, otherwise you will loose your
personal freedoms.
Posted by Tui Pohutukawa (366 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: I hope Americans realise
I hope we do too. The problem is that so many people are frightened, and as such are willing to do whatever it takes to alleviate said fear. In addition to that, our shrewd as hell government knows it, and is willing to do whatever it takes to manipulate it (and <em>they've</em> got a practically unlimited budget!).

We need more people willing to accept the risk of living in a free society. If everybody would rather be secure, I can understand that, but security is about as far from freedom as you can get. If we are going to live in the manner in which this country was founded to provide, we have to accept that people will get hurt, people will get killed, and it is not always avoidable. Ideally, we will be able to come up with ways to minimize occurances of such terrible things without continuing to jeopardize our once unassailable beliefs.

(This turned out far longer than I intended!)
Posted by normalityrelief (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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