Can We Ever Be Safe (Again)?

Technology-based security no cure-all, puts civil liberties at risk.

Last weeks terrorist attacks in New York and Washington are spawning new technology-based security efforts in places such as airports, where the days of the two questions and a quick pass through the metal detector are gone forever.

The heightened focus on cutting-edge security technologies—everything from biometrics to smart ID cards to massive personnel databases—offers hope of a safer society. But it also raises questions about technological feasibility and the loss of personal freedoms. Within the argument, one thing seems inevitable: The greater the security measures we create, the more sophisticated and spectacular will be the measures taken to breach them.

"With foolproof software, someones always going to find a bigger fool," said Michael Pollard, systems support technician at Market Touch, in Alpharetta, Ga. "In the same regard, you can create a smart security system, but someone can always outsmart it."

In terms of identification, many airports already are going beyond the simple glance at a drivers license to make sure passengers are who they say they are. David Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, for example, has started using palm scanners from Electronic Data Systems Corp. Customers slide identification cards through a scanner and then supply a palm print to prove their print matches the print on the card.

And while retinal and face scanning software has been available for years, implementing such systems raises several thorny issues.

For one, its expensive. The result: "[You] would end up with some airports that can afford it while others cant, and then you just shift the problem to smaller airports," said William Malik, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

Theres also the ongoing issue of privacy.

"With biometrics, you could easily have positive ID on everyone and instant background checks on everyone on a plane," Pollard said. "But a lot of people already chafe at having their fingerprints on drivers licenses."

Greater use of smart-card authentication is a possibility, but privacy issues surround that technology as well.

"I expect well see smart-card-based authentication," Malik said. "The Pentagon [has] already deployed 50,000 cards to their staff. Will we see a national ID card? I dont know. We may see technology for robust authentication, but that gets into questions of social policy."

The privacy factor also impacts detection technology. Currently most U.S. airports depend on metal detectors for passengers and X-ray machines and sniffers for luggage. Sending the passengers themselves through X-ray machines certainly would be more thorough, but the average American traveler doesnt want the average airport employee to see under their clothes, experts say.

Furthermore, identification raises issues of IT security.

"Positive identification is one side of the coin," said Jim Dullum, head of the Global Transportation Industry Group at EDS, in Plano, Texas. "The other is integrating the information of the individual. It becomes one big file, a huge series of real-time data files that need to be available. From an IT perspective, youre creating much more-massive databases ... and another data security issue."

Basically, tracking biological data for every passenger means making sure hackers cant get access to that data, Dullum said.

This is where privacy and security issues merge.

"Right-wingers will say [last weeks attacks] illustrate the importance of giving law enforcement greater eavesdropping access, even to the point of prohibiting encryption [or requiring folks who use it to register their keys]," said Steve Durst, a security consultant at Skaion Corp., in Arlington, Mass. "Left-wingers will wring their hands and decry this event as a catalyst for increased social acceptance of decreased freedoms, including the freedom to keep your data private.

Central to both is the question whether theres anything law enforcement can do in an environment where criminals are increasingly technologically savvy and where encryption or other forms of technological concealment will become more prevalent.

Keeping track of airport travelers and their luggage is getting the bulk of the attention from security pundits in the wake of the terrorist assaults. But the airport and its environs also provide an excellent example of how human and technological security elements collide. Even with the most state-of-the-art technology, the systems are only as good as the people who run them.

But several business travelers who in the days previous to the attacks flew through Bostons Logan International Airport—the site of two of the four hijackings that resulted in last weeks attacks—reported numerous incidents of lax security including passengers getting small items in boxes past security by placing them on the tables between metal detectors.

"People who do the security work [in airports] make less than those flipping burgers at McDonalds," said Gartners Malik. "There is probably something technology can do, but we have to spend more on basic blocking and tackling and make sure the people implementing the technology are treated with the right dignity and respect. We have no instances in human history where technology was able to compensate for a procedural weakness. The computer is an intelligence amplifier—something that replicates and accelerates well-defined business processes. We find computers are also stupidity amplifiers—take a poorly defined process and try to automate it and have an automated mess."

EDS Dullum agreed. "This is an area where when the systems become more sophisticated, the staffing will become more sophisticated. It will mean bringing in experts," he said. "For the foreseeable future were going to do a very manual check-in process."

"We really believe there is going to be some scaling back of the items and luggage youre going to be able to bring onto an airplane," Dullum said. Airports likely will require bar coding and scanning of the luggage, possibly with embedded chips in bag tags.

In the air, the airlines are working on broadband networks for airplanes, which will give passengers and pilots better equipment for keeping in touch with people, including safety officials, on the ground.