More Watchful, Probably Not Safer
By Kim Zetterhttp://www.wired.com/news/privacy/0,1848,66616,00.html
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
But according to a new book, that optimism would
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.