By Larry Barrett  |  Posted 2004-04-04 Print this article Print

: Summer of 2001"> Flashback: Summer of 2001

The Econo Lodge motel on Las Vegas Boulevard where Atta stayed is a short walk from both the Stratosphere Casino Hotel & Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, and the FBIs Las Vegas headquarters. Perhaps more significantly, his motel room was also seven miles north of the headquarters of Systems Research and Development Inc. (SRD).

SRD makes software that casinos have used since 1994 to spot "non-obvious" relationships within mountains of data collected on individuals. The Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies now use the software to pursue known and suspected terrorists.

According to SRD chief executive officer Jeff Jonas, if those agencies had been working with the private sector—read: "Las Vegas casinos"—three years ago, chances would be much higher that Atta would have been arrested or detained in Las Vegas, perhaps even in his Econo Lodge room. Atta, after all, was traveling with an expired tourist visa and, according to the State Department, was already on its list of suspected or known terrorists.

A simple query of his passport, visa, drivers license or credit card against State Department or FBI databases would have resulted in a match.

This initial match would have alerted the FBI, CIA and Las Vegas police that a known or suspected terrorist was in Las Vegas. From there, SRDs software would have begun churning through billions of lines of code in multiple databases, including telephone directories, rental-car records and airline reservations, as well as the State Departments suspected-terrorist list and the list of expired visas maintained by what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to create an immediate, up-to-the-moment profile of Atta, his whereabouts and his activities.

The software also would have sent out warnings. Even something as simple as a clear image of Attas face distributed to local law enforcement throughout the country might have been enough to save more than 3,000 lives.

The software would also make connections, on its own. Anyone who ever listed a similar address, name or phone number to Atta—even anyone who had ever used "Mohamed Atta" or any similar spelling as an identity—would have been red-flagged by the software and then subsequent checks of private and public databases would have been initiated for those people. The links also are likely to have discovered, for instance, that Atta and Jarrah had visited a cybercafé near the University of Nevada in Las Vegas at the same time on the same date.

As DHS and other federal and international authorities struggle to find elusive details that connect otherwise innocuous transactions and events to known threats, Las Vegas casinos identify these links every day.

Had Atta, for instance, driven a rental car into the parking lot at any major casino that August evening, the license plate would have been photographed by digital cameras at the entrance and compared to a database provided by federal and local law enforcement looking for that specific vehicle. Had he arrived by taxi at the front valet entrance, another camera would have recorded an image of the taxis license plate, number and company.

If he had arrived on foot, he would have been caught on video well before he even entered the main casino. Once inside the casino, he would have been photographed continuously in every location inside the casino except for an individual guest room or a bathroom. But the casino would have date- and time-stamped images of him entering and leaving either of those places.

In addition, a digital image of his face would have been captured and compared to a database of undesirables such as known card counters (known as "advantage players"), those with a proclivity for illegally manipulating slot machines, dice and cards as well as those known for stealing from casinos, guests and the public. If there was a match, he would have been detained by casino security in less than two minutes.

Next Page: All individuals must get equal scrutiny.

Senior Writer
Larry, of San Carlos, Calif., was a senior writer and editor at CNet, writing analysis, breaking news and opinion stories. He was technology reporter at the San Jose Business Journal from 1996-1997. He graduated with a B.A. from San Jose State University where he was also executive editor of the daily student newspaper.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel