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More Watchful, Probably Not Safer

By Kim Zetter,1848,66616,00.html

Are you safer now than you were four years ago?

That was the question politicians posed to voters last year during the
presidential campaign. Voters who opted to give the administration four
more years presumably would answer in the affirmative.

But according to a new book, that optimism would be misplaced.

Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World, written
by three contributing writers to Wired magazine and a former editor of
that publication, asks why, if our society is one of the most
technologically advanced in the world, we can't protect ourselves from
threats to our safety.

Despite the fact that a second attack of 9/11 proportions hasn't
occurred, the experts surveyed in this book -- academics, scientists,
engineers and civil servants -- haven't relaxed in that knowledge.

That's because even though the U.S. government has spent millions on
technological cure-alls marketed by company executives, the money has
not been spent wisely -- largely, the experts argue, because the
government has focused on responding to the last attack, rather than
preparing for the next one.

Efforts spent developing and implementing airport watch lists that are
easily thwarted and biometrics that are not fully proven have distracted
from the more serious tasks of preparing for biological, chemical or
nuclear attacks that many experts feel are the next real threats. While
airline passengers surrender nail clippers and Zippo lighters, for
example, millions of cargo containers pass through metropolitan shipping
ports each day with less than 5 percent of them being inspected.

It should have been no surprise, then, when Italian police patrolling a
waterfront in October 2001 heard noises coming from a sealed cargo
container and found a well-dressed Egyptian man inside carrying a
laptop, satellite phone, airport maps and security badges.

But that wasn't nearly as disconcerting as when an ABC News crew
discovered in 2002 that it could ship unenriched uranium in a cargo
container from Turkey to the United States without it being detected.
They repeated the exercise a year later with the same results.

A nuclear bomb in a container package or a more silent chemical attack
in a large city are the kinds of scenarios that people like Stephen
Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander and now a homeland security expert
with the Council on Foreign Relations, worry about.

And that's the real focus of this book, not the dire predictions and
dismal scenarios, but the scientists and engineers who are tackling the
complex issues that can't be solved with the kinds of simple
technological solutions that governments like to deploy.

They're people who spend their days using computers to model the
behavior of proteins inside cells or gauge the cascading effects of a
power failure. Or they spend their time asking questions like, what
would happen if terrorists bombed crucial railroad bridges and
junctions, and rail traffic came to a halt? One answer is that a lot of
the chlorine that is used to purify the nation's water supply would be
prevented from reaching its destination.

The book also examines the ways in which research and innovative ideas
often get squelched because the people with real solutions don't have
access to the people and funds that can do something about them.

As the authors write in their introduction, few experts "have forums in
which their debates can be heard, let alone privileged access to
political leadership."

Prior to 9/11, for example, Flynn and others tried to get the government
and shipping companies to take port security seriously. At one
presentation before the 9/11 attacks, Flynn tried to get his point
across by juxtaposing a picture of Osama bin Laden with a photo of a
container ship.

"After September 11," he told the authors, "I was the only guy who
didn't need to change his slide show."

Now, at least, he's being taken more seriously, and the government has
started to fund research into security products that would help
authorities better secure the contents of cargo containers and track
their whereabouts.

Often, the government opts for simple solutions over complex ones that
might be more effective, simply because the complex solutions cause
politicians' eyes to glaze over.

One example of a simple solution being ineffective is the Department of
Homeland Security's Biowatch early-warning project, which piggybacks on
equipment designed to measure pollen counts in the air. The sensors now
collect air samples to measure the presence of biological agents as
well, which then undergo numerous lab tests that are fairly pointless.
Why pointless? Because there is usually only one collection point in a
city, and unless a biological agent is released right at the collection
point, it isn't likely to register in an air sample.

Instead of more technologies, the experts and authors argue, we need
smarter technologies. And we also need to know when to forego technology
altogether in favor of human-based solutions. These are the kinds of
solutions advocated by people like Rafi Ron, former director of security
at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel-Aviv, Israel, who has helped train U.S.
security personnel in recognizing the subtle clues that people who are
intent on causing harm often give off.

Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California at
San Francisco medical school and an expert in the physiology of emotion
and nonverbal communication, has also been training law enforcement
officials for years in how to read the tiny facial expressions that
betray the inner emotions of people who are lying or being deceptive.

As an example of where human intuition and experience can beat out
technology, the authors of Safe recount the incident in 1999 when a U.S.
Customs agent in Washington state stopped a man driving across the
border from Canada simply because the driver seemed jittery.

There wasn't any computer watch list or biometric machinery that could
have told the agent to flag him for further inspection -- he'd never
done anything to get him on a list -- but a closer examination of his
car trunk revealed a stash of more than 100 pounds of explosive
materials. It turns out he was headed to Los Angeles International
Airport to detonate the materials in his car at the turn of the

While the book is well-researched and well-written, it's difficult to
discern its intended purpose or market. On the dust jacket, the central
premise for the book seems to be to answer why such a technically savvy
country can't secure itself. This seems to imply that the book will
examine the pros and cons of current technologies and offer solutions
with regard to better technologies that could make us safer. We do get
some of this, but only in bits and pieces woven throughout the profiles
of technologists and their technologies -- some of which has been
written about elsewhere.

And one of the more interesting topics addressed in the book --
open-source research and innovation, in which researchers would build
off the work of each other -- is only touched upon in a few places. It
would have been nice to have this explored in a more comprehensive way.


Also in this issue:

- PCs do thousands of years of work
  A global network of computer users has clocked up more than 4,000
years' worth of computer   calculations in under three months as part of
a huge grid project.
- Hi-tech answers to pupil problems
  The perennial school problems of bullying and truancy are back on the
agenda as education   minister Ruth Kelly pledges a tough stance on
school discipline.
- Tools to ease Web collaboration
  Joe Kraus, CEO of, is betting on a future explosion of
so-called Wikis, a type   of Web page that can be edited by anyone.
- Experts: Cyber-crime bigger threat than cyber-terror
  As David Perry left a cyber-security conference in Luxembourg in 2004,
an airport terminal   handling international flights was in chaos.
- Napster Refutes Flawed Protection Claims
  Less than three weeks after Napster Inc. began touting its
all-you-can-rent music   subscription service, the company finds itself
refuting Internet claims that its   copy-protection measures are flawed.
- Tutankhamun Murder Mystery Hangs on March Report
  A team of experts expects to announce in March whether the latest test
results on the   mummified body of Tutankhamun will provide evidence for
the theory that the boy pharaoh   was murdered.
- Microsoft Anti-Spyware Tool Will Be Free
  Microsoft on Tuesday confirmed plans for Anti-virus and anti-spyware
products for   enterprise customers, the company stopped short of giving
details on pricing and release   dates.
- MyDoom Worm Spreads Via Search Engines
  Latest variant finds e-mail address on your hard drive and on search
- '24' Makes Britain a Hotbed for Illicit TV Downloads
  Britain has emerged as the world's biggest market for downloading
pirated TV, driven by   tech-savvy fans who are unwilling to wait for
popular U.S. shows such as "Desperate   Housewives."
- Iranian Cleric Blogs for Free Expression
  Blogging might not sound an appropriate hobby for a senior Iranian
government official,   particularly one who is a Muslim cleric.
- The Fight Over Cyber Oversight
  A recent security breach at data aggregator ChoicePoint was the topic
of conversation   Wednesday during a discussion about government
regulation and corporate liability at the   RSA Conference on security
in San Francisco.
- More Watchful, Probably Not Safer
  Are you safer now than you were four years ago? That was the question
politicians posed to   voters last year during the presidential
campaign. Voters who opted to give the   administration four more years
presumably would answer in the affirmative.
- Geeks to the Corps
  There are over 75 Geeks who are or have served their terms in projects
around the world.    They are an international bunch, hailing from North
America, Europe and Africa. You can     read about their adventures at

Member: Association for International Business

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