July 7, 2005 10:06 AM PDT

Terror and technology

perspective Thursday's events in London have shown that even a technologically advanced country with well-trained security services and time to prepare cannot stop the determined terrorist.

This should come as no surprise; there is little even a police state can do against small groups committed to striking at random. In a democracy committed to personal freedom and the rule of law, such abuses will always be possible by those who wish harm.

What technology gives us is a robust, enduring infrastructure. Our adversaries can blow up buildings and visit tragedy upon the innocent, but murderous vandalism does not strike at the heart of our way of life. The terror that these criminals perpetrate is abated considerably by our ability to use information in new and flexible ways. Across the Internet, focal points have already formed where individuals can check up on friends and family, where reports from the ground can circulate free of the sensationalist tendencies of some of the mainstream media. These are places where our worst fears are allayed.

Related photos
The world witnesses
Citizens share photos of the London
blasts on sites around the Web.

Likewise, the mechanisms of state and commerce continue. The center of London is physically paralyzed, yet we can connect from anywhere and can carry on at work. It is fortifying to see well-planned responses working. Even when the mobile phone carriers went into emergency mode and gave priority to the police at the expense of ordinary people, it was seen by all as an expected and appropriate act. Traders in the city turned off their automated trading systems to forestall a computer-driven market crash. An important aspect of technology is always to retain the human element at critical parts of the loop.

There is much to be done now. We'll have to wait and see whether the surveillance systems we've accepted in our lives--in part because of the risk of terrorism--will help us find the culprits. Mobile phone location logs, closed-circuit television and data mining of travel, financial and other data may be useful, or it may be that the knowledge that such things exist is enough to let the terrorists avoid them. It is in their interests to make our lives as uncomfortable and regimented as possible, and a cool and dispassionate assessment is and will always be necessary for technology-led systems introduced for our own security.

That's in the future. For now, we can be glad that we have ordered our affairs such that in the event of a major terrorist attack against a crowded city such as ours, London and the United Kingdom will carry on regardless, even though personal tragedies will abide. The most these people can do is scare us, and we know better than to be scared.

ZDNet UK staff reported from London.

 

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