Unlocking the potential
- By John x_Zyskowski
- Dec 02, 2001
The success of technology during the past decade is usually described
in terms of economics. The Internet and related technologies are largely
credited with increasing the efficiency of both the private and public sectors,
making it possible to deliver more goods and services at a fraction of the
Now, in the wake of terrorist attacks, technology is being applied to
a new challenge: homeland security.
As investigators sift through the details of the events before and after
the Sept. 11 attacks, they see a picture emerging of where technology worked
and where it didn't. They are also identifying the many opportunities in
which new and still emerging technologies can play a greater role in responding
to terrorism and, ideally, thwarting future attacks.
Athough the need to improve cybersecurity has deservedly received much
attention, a long list of other technologies will also be called upon —
from systems that can improve communication and collaboration among agencies,
to ones that enhance electronic eavesdropping capabilities, to still others
that use biometrics to safeguard the nation's airports and borders.
As the government pours money into helping agencies recover from and
protect against terrorist attacks, much of that funding will make its way
to contractors, said Angela Styles, administrator of the Office of Federal
However, "it's difficult right now to predict exactly how federal contracting
needs will unfold," she told a group of vendors from the Northern Virginia
area in November.
For example, some agencies are focusing on bandwidth problems discovered
in the first hours after the attacks, when phone lines jammed, network connections
went down and cell phones became useless (see "To be redundant," at right).
Others are thinking long-term, seeking solutions that can help them manage,
communicate and share information better within their agencies and across
In fact, as the president clearly outlined in the executive order that
created the Office of Homeland Security, the basis of all such efforts is
information sharing, getting the right information to the right people at
the right time, said Mark Forman, associate director for information technology
and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget.
"At the heart of it is, how do we act as a team?" he said. "We need
In that spirit, most of the big procurement opportunities will come
in the form of systems integration, and knowledge management solutions "will
probably account for well over $1 billion in spending," Forman said.
Knowledge management systems vary in capabilities, but in their most
basic form, they work by shifting through large, often disparate collections
of electronic information, such as databases, e-mail messages, Web sites,
news feeds and even voice or video recordings.
The software then creates an index to that information, filling it with
cross-references between related records and, in some cases, between records
and the people who created them or use them often, the so-called subject-matter
The State Department is already working on a global knowledge management
system, called the Overseas Presence Knowledge Management and Collaboration
System, which will bring together information from almost 40 agencies into
a single network.
Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, is very interested
in determining how this system can help governmentwide, said Fernando Burbano,
State's chief information officer.
But other agencies are looking for collaboration solutions on a smaller
scale to help them share information within their own environments.
"We need to collaborate in house before we can talk about collaborating
out of house," said Mark Tanner, information resources manager at the FBI.
Even agencies such as the CIA are looking to the commercial sector to
help them in this area. "We're searching for ways to improve information
sharing," said Doug Naquin, deputy CIO at the CIA. "Much of our focus will
be on how to improve the intelligence community's collaboration."
The CIA will be working closely with industry to adopt products and
solutions that are already available, and to develop new ones through In-Q-Tel,
the organization founded by the agency to fund development of innovative
technology products, Naquin said.
"We have to be able to collect more [information], and we have to be
able to do something with it," he said. That involves not only getting the
information to the people who need it, but also somehow getting feedback
from those people about whether the information is of any help, he added.
Indeed, several executives at knowledge management companies point to
the apparent wealth of information uncovered by investigators about the
perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks — from their physical movements to
their financial transactions — yet they noted the frustrating inability
to make sense of it in time to possibly thwart the attacks.
"I think we have quickly come to a conclusion that this is a problem
of understanding and sharing what we know more than a problem of not knowing,"
said Peter Fuchs, chief executive officer and chairman of TheBrain Technologies
Corp., which develops knowledge management software.
Of course, that realization doesn't necessarily make the problem any
easier to solve. "This has got to be one of the biggest knowledge management
challenges that anybody faces in the world," Fuchs said.
The scale of the problem only grows as government officials begin to
recognize the number of agencies that have a role to play in homeland security
— as information providers, information consumers or both, said Dan Agan,
vice president of corporate market development at Convera, which develops
software for indexing and retrieving multimedia content.
More to Come
Agan said future technology developments will help in a number of areas.
Improvements in hardware performance, for example, will eventually enable
the real-time conversion of speech to text, which can play a key role in
gathering and analyzing information.
But the most important gains will come in software, which must start
to make sense of all this information. The job is daunting.
"Say you have some information in French and Arabic that seems to relate
to one another," Agan said. "That requires computational linguistics to,
first, translate the information and then, second, to understand how the
language is being used in each of those two instances. You might also want
to look at the density of concepts inside the material. What is each document
talking about? Does it make sense or is it code?"
Some of the algorithms for handling such tasks exist already, but they
are in rudimentary, stand-alone form, according to Agan. More advanced algorithms
are under development at universities and other research organizations,
and much of the work that lies ahead involves making those algorithms work
together efficiently by using some parallel processing techniques, Agan
"It's absolutely essential for the sake of scalability to be able to
take individual processes and peel them off and run them simultaneously....
[Otherwise], we will get answers, but eight years too late," he said.
Other, related developments, such as the growing use of Extensible Markup
Language (XML) and other Web-based technologies, will also give a boost
to knowledge management systems in the future, according to Mike Loria,
director of the advanced collaboration unit at Lotus Development Corp.
Currently, most knowledge management vendors have to write custom interfaces
to enable their systems to index data from different applications. "With
XML, the more standardized data will make it easier to integrate that data
into a knowledge management system," Loria said.
Likewise, to the extent that Web technologies such as Java, Simple Object
Access Protocol, and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration standardize
the way new applications are developed and managed, they too will make it
easier for knowledge management systems to ingest more information, which
will make them even more valuable.
Eyes, Ears and Faces
Using knowledge management to better understand information about terrorist
activities dovetails with a range of other technologies the government can
use for homeland security.
The FBI's Carnivore is a good example of a system that can be used to
eavesdrop on suspicious Internet-based communications such as e-mail messages.
But Carnivore — now known as DCS-1000 — is limited by the fact that special
equipment has to be deployed at the Internet service provider's facility
through which the suspect data traffic passes.
More preferable is a wiretap system that would already be deployed around
the Internet and could be activated and operated remotely as needed by law
enforcement agents. Such a system has been called for under the Communications
Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994, but the federal government
has so far not required its deployment, in part because of industry objections
about the price of compliance.
"Today, there is very spotty coverage because so few ISPs comply," said
Mike Paquette, vice president of marketing and product management at Top
Layer Networks, which is developing a system that enables this type of Internet
wiretapping. "This is one reason why Carnivore exists."
Paquette said improvements in price and performance will make it feasible
to more widely deploy the systems called for by CALEA. For example, current
wiretapping technology can handle only about 1 gigabit/sec of data traffic
per line, which is not much. Top Layer and other vendors are developing
systems that will be able to handle 10 times that much traffic and more,
changing the economics of deploying the equipment.
With more powerful hardware, "in the future, you might have equipment
located around a fewer aggregation points [for Internet traffic], as opposed
to having lots of smaller systems located at all the ISPs," Paquette said.
Once coverage is more complete, Paquette envisions a system that provides
law enforcement officials with full electronic access to targeted communications.
The officers would obtain warrants from judges authorizing a wiretap, then
use court-issued digital certificates to activate the eavesdropping equipment
Even with this ability, federal officials will not have an unimpeded,
omniscient view of electronic communications around the country.
"The ready availability of cryptography software is a problem," said
Daniel Ryan, a security consultant and former director of information systems
security at the Pentagon. "For those of us who want to do credit card transactions
on the Web, 128-bit encryption is good. The problem is that the bad guys
can do it, too."
It is generally thought that a computer powerful enough to crack 128-bit
encryption does not exist, said John Worrall, director of product marketing
at RSA Security Inc.
But scientists are working on one that someday might be powerful enough
to beat 128-bit encryption — a so-called quantum computer that relies on
principles of quantum mechanics to process enormous amounts of information.
But daunting design challenges must be overcome before such a computer can
be built on a useful scale.
Even if law enforcement officers can't read the contents of encrypted
messages, they can glean valuable information with traffic analysis systems,
Ryan said. By tracing data packets as they move across the Internet, they
can see who is sending and receiving messages, which can help them identify
people who might be involved in terrorist activities.
Diane Frank contributed to this article.