A new spin on global security
Technology is not the hard part when it comes to fostering international anti-terrorism efforts
- By Jennifer Jones
- Aug 29, 2005
Homeland security officials go on high alert when X-rays detect mysterious metal objects inside cargo containers bound for the United States. African customs officials react similarly when they detect deliveries of black-market sugar, an import that can undermine the fragile economies of small sub-Saharan nations.
Because countries define and prioritize security threats differently, international efforts that harness technology to secure borders and combat terrorism must factor in a host of cultural, political and economic issues. Because U.S. homeland security funding is limited and terrorist threats are so vast, the need to spread the workload more equally among other countries is crucial.
Federal efforts to increase international cooperation abound. For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is working with a global standards-making group to speed data exchange. Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department is giving other governments a stronger voice in data-sharing and privacy decisions to foster more cooperation. And the Defense Department is more willing to let NATO and European Union countries lead some communications projects.
The leaders of those initiatives often find that technical challenges pale in comparison to geopolitical and social issues.
"The technology has existed for many years now to ensure a smooth exchange of information between [international] IT systems," said Dietmar Jost, senior technical officer at the World Customs Organization (WCO) in Brussels, Belgium. "So clearly, technology has not been the obstacle to such undertakings. It is more the readiness and preparedness of the individual countries."
Largely because of its work with WCO, CBP is considered to be one of the most advanced agencies in efforts that foster international cooperation in anti-terrorism information technology.
"Customs has indeed made efforts in this respect, but I'm afraid that it remains the exception rather than the rule," said Mathieu Deflem, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina whose research specialties include international law enforcement, counterterrorism and technology.
Composed of 166 member countries, WCO has drafted and circulated a common set of standards for international customs agencies and private shippers. Those organizations will use the standards to exchange data more easily and thus tighten cargo security and expedite imports and exports.
U.S. officials announced that they intended to adopt WCO standards in June 2006, and so far, about 100 other countries have signaled their intent to participate, as well. However, economic and organizational differences block the path to broader participation.
"A number of countries do not allow government entities to share information internationally," Jost said. "The much bigger problem, however, is the unavailability or insufficient access to IT and telecommunications networks in less-developed countries."
Those countries not only lack IT infrastructures but also tend to disagree about how to spend limited resources and shape security programs.
One example is the illegal truckloads of sugar that slip by African border patrols. "Recently, we had discussions with [an African customs official], who said to us, 'You've got to make sure that the rules put in place cover my issues,' " said Keith Thomson, assistant commissioner of CBP's Office of International Affairs. "We are now working very hard to take into account the different needs and different requirements of various countries."
This dialogue between CBP and African officials occurred as part of recent U.S. efforts to promote the WCO framework, which CBP officials will use to broaden some of its IT programs.
"We've realized that a lot of what we have in place are U.S.-centric rules, and that our rules should instead be more global," Thomson said.
Efforts to globalize international trade and shipping procedures, however, do not involve scrapping current initiatives. The WCO framework will include with modifications elements of CBP's work to form data exchange standards for international use.
"Many of our own terms and methodologies were designed in isolation," said William Nolle, a CBP international trade specialist. "The WCO data model gets to the issue of exchanging information in the same representation, how you code data and get the same syntax."
In addition to foreign governments and international shippers, agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard will benefit from CBP's work by building on those initiatives.
"We recognized early on that terrorist attacks are international problems that need international solutions," said Capt. Tony Regalbuto, chief of the Office of Policy and Planning in the agency's Port Security Directorate.
For example, Regalbuto said, the guard's International Port Security Program involves the exchange of information among agency officials and U.S. trading partners on best practices for port security.
The Coast Guard is also working with foreign counterparts through the International Maritime Organization.
Furthermore, it is reaching out to foreign governments that might want to use the Integrated Deepwater System program, which is a major effort to replace aging cutters and related underwater sensors. To help fund the program, the Coast Guard is trying to generate interest from other countries that would want to use the underwater sensors and other devices that can track vessels in danger of terrorist attacks.
People vs. cargo
Tracking ships and exchanging cargo data often don't stir the hornet's nest of privacy issues that the proposition of sharing passenger data does. "As we start looking at units of people, as opposed to units of cargo, there is a lot of discussion of privacy and access to data," Thomson said.
Privacy discussions are particularly tricky when tracking travelers from different nations, and consensus can be difficult. "When it comes down to negotiating treaties and policies around the kinds of information that will be shared, you are likely to see tension, especially when you get into areas such as the sharing of passenger information," said Barbara Lawler, Hewlett-Packard's chief privacy officer.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has sought more privacy-related input from other governments and has reached some notable agreements.
For example, DHS adopted the Passenger Name Record Agreement with the European Commission last May to guide data collection on individuals flying between Europe and the United States.
More recently, DHS' chief privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, has asked the DHS Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee to assess the way the Transportation Security Administration handles data from passenger records during Secure Flight, its passenger prescreening effort.
"There is a lot of EU representation on the DHS privacy committee," Lawler said.
Close collaboration on privacy issues about Secure Flight and other DHS efforts is vital, especially given the fundamental difference in the ways countries view privacy rights.
"In European countries, you will really see regulators that specialize in privacy rights," Lawler said. "But in Asian countries, such as Japan or South Korea, the concept of privacy as a human right is just not there."
One sign that global privacy positions may become more homogenized is the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation's adoption of a privacy framework late last year to provide member countries with uniform personal data-collection policies.
This standard could help move critical discussions forward by diminishing the likelihood that countries assembled to discuss privacy issues will remain mired in the details. "Groups often get caught up in taxonomy," Lawler said. "They spend a lot of time discussing things like, 'What does a notification mean? What does consent mean?' "
More recent events, such as the bombings of London's public transportation system, also may spur international agreement.
"Privacy issues sometimes pop up but not quite as often as one would think," Deflem said. "The reason is that police and intelligence are quite autonomous in doing their job in a manner that is meant to be efficient in terms of the goal of tracing a suspect or making an arrest."
But most agree that more privacy work is necessary.
Luis Solis, president and chief executive officer of GroupSystems, a provider of group collaboration and decision-making solutions for several international and domestic government entities, said U.S. officials should work more closely with groups such as the NATO Research and Technology Organisation to harmonize data-collection policies.
"We do believe that the U.S. and its key allies will need to standardize formats to achieve the degree of coordination, preparedness and responsiveness that terrorism combat now requires," Solis said.
Sweeping controversial issues such as privacy provisions to guide collection of data on travelers, progress more slowly than do simpler exercises to reconcile data-exchange formats.
Additionally, tightly focused international projects tend to be more successful than broader initiatives, Deflem said. "The most ambitious systems in terms of scope of cooperation are ironically not always the most successful," he said.
To make his point, Deflem cited Interpol, an organization composed of 182 countries that relies on an outdated and underused information-sharing system, he said. "Other cooperation efforts are less ambitious in scope but work better," he said.
In the end, aggressive relationship-building among governments will foster the greatest degree of success and cooperation worldwide.
"What is very important in the successful use of these technologies is that the agents of counterterrorism and international policing know one another on a personal level, trust one another and have a solid working relationship," Deflem said. n
Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.