Is our national obsession with technology causing us to misdirect our terrorism-fighting efforts?
- By John Moore
- Aug 28, 2006
Technology has become so intertwined with homeland security it would be difficult to name a security program in which technology isn’t the main driver or an important underpinning.
From sensors designed to detect explosives to sophisticated data analysis software, technology is considered a national advantage in the war on terrorism. This should hardly be a surprise given America’s techno-centric orientation and historical leadership in innovation.
But a number of observers believe the nation should consider the limitations of technology in homeland security. In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, there was little room for such introspection as the government rushed to use existing technologies to fill the security gap.
Nearly five years later, however, the government community has just begun to grapple with some essential policy questions. What’s the optimum mix of technology and old-fashioned, feet-on-the-street human intelligence? What is the best way to balance the interests of robust national security and civil liberties?
Before answers to those questions are debated, David Nelson, a security consultant at Input, said he believes another query should be addressed: To what extent can technology truly help?
“If you look at the current patterns of terrorism, it isn’t clear to me that technology investment is anything like a silver bullet for fighting terrorists,” said Nelson, former director of the National Coordination Office for Information Technology Research and Development in the Executive Office of the President.
Nelson said terrorists do not depend on sophisticated technology for many types of attacks, noting suicide bombers’ ability to transport explosives without drawing attention to themselves and detonate them with relatively simple technology. That simplicity coupled with the intellectual sophistication of university-educated terrorist leaders makes thwarting terrorism through technology a difficult task, he added.
“It’s going to be very hard for us to find a technology…that will neutralize the threat,” he said. “And that means our expectations for the role of technology in thwarting terrorist activities have to be more realistic.”
Security technologist Bruce Schneier agreed. His 2003 book, “Beyond Fear,” criticizes what he views as ineffective security approaches.
“I think we have very unrealistic expectations,” he said. “We’re used to technology ‘solving’ problems, and we expect [it] to solve terrorism security. Unfortunately, terrorism is much more a people problem than a technology problem.”
But other observers see technology as a critical enabler in dealing with an asymmetric threat in which enormous resources are required to counter shadowy, unpredictable groups that want to inflict maximum damage.
Ronald Indeck, a professor of electrical engineering at Washington University at St. Louis and director of the university’s Center for Security Technologies, said he believes the nation is not overly dependent on technology. On the contrary, Indeck called technology the only viable approach given the current threat landscape.
“There isn’t any other tremendously effective method other than to employ the kinds of security technologies that we have…developed,” he added.
Indeck said the lack of a terrorism attack in the United States since 2001 “speaks volumes as to how well things are working.” But he acknowledged that no solution provides 100 percent protection. “We have to do the best we can and recognize that [that] may not always be enough.”
But even those who view technology as an important tool note its limitations.
“Our view is, yes, we have a technological advantage,” said Tim Connors, director of the Center for Policing Terrorism at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “But at the end of the day…you can’t turn this effort over to a machine or a computer program. There is still a human operator.”
Several security experts argued that technology shouldn’t overshadow the human dimension.
“We would always like there to be a technology solution to solve the problem of terrorism,” said Brian Jackson, a physical scientist at Rand. Technology solutions, he said, don’t require a salary and won’t get distracted on the job, but they have a critical limitation: the lack of human intuition.
Jackson noted that it was alert border employees who apprehended Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium bomber. Ressam entered the United States from Canada, but U.S. customs officials in Washington state were suspicious of Ressam’s nervous behavior. They arrested him after bomb-making materials were found in his car, and he was eventually convicted of plotting an attack on Los Angeles International Airport.
Technology’s other notable limitation, according to Jackson, is its tendency to flag innocuous events as security breaches. Security professionals refer to this issue as the false positive problem. An overly sensitive data-mining application or bomb-detecting sensor, for example, will report many false positives.
In the case of homeland security, those false positives take a heavy financial toll if they trigger a massive emergency response, Jackson said. On the other hand, turn down the sensitivity of a given technology system and “you’re going to miss some genuine positives,” he said.
Although technology has limitations, the same can be said about humans, observers say.
James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said human intelligence has not always been dependable and useful in the post-Sept. 11 era.
“Human intelligence is something you can hope for, not something you can count on,” said John Pike, a defense, space and intelligence policy expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org. Reliance on homeland security’s human dimension is akin to “the notion that you can leave the door unlocked because there are cops on the beat,” he said. “Most people don’t look at it that way.”
“It has to be a layered defense, and surely one of the reasons the evildoers haven’t gotten to us [since Sept. 11, 2001] is precisely because we do have layers of defense,” Pike said.
Many security and policy experts believe homeland security should aim for equilibrium between the human and the technological.
“We have to create a balance of intelligence technologies and human intelligence,” said P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow and director of national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress. “Technology is the cornerstone of a sustainable homeland security system, but technology has to be part of a broader scheme that includes the human dimension.”
But when it comes to government investment, the human side of the scale sometimes loses.
“In many instances, we reach out for a technology solution before we get the organizational and human solution in place,” Connors said. Agencies that neglect those pieces of the equation may end up with a technology that doesn’t fit their security game plan, he said.
The FBI’s Trilogy IT infrastructure upgrade is an example. The project has been derided over the years as a technology money pit that lacks proper management controls. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) once accused Congress of throwing money at the program “to show we were concerned about terrorism.” The program fell apart as a result, he said.
Trilogy’s $170 million Virtual Case File component was scrapped after repeated cost and schedule overruns. In addition, updating the system was nearly impossible because of its design. In March, the FBI awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to build VCF’s successor — the Sentinel automated case management system.
The imbalance of human and technical factors can also be found in the government’s funding calculus. The Homeland Security Department’s decision in May to cut New York City’s anti-terrorism funding by 40 percent was due, in part, to the city’s use of grant money for overtime pay.
The federal government wants to fund efforts that have a meaningful long-term impact, a position that favors spending on equipment and infrastructure, Connors said.
But cultivating counterterrorism expertise requires training. “Overtime is what allows you to pull people off the street and provide them with a meaningful training experience that builds their knowledge base,” Connors said.
Security and policy experts suggest that the human intelligence versus technical prowess debate is in its early stages.
“I don’t think we have a good understanding” of how to think about that balance, Jackson said. “That is an issue we are going to have to wrestle with as a country and a policy community going forward.”
“There is going to be a never-ending dynamic between human intelligence and human capital resources and technology in homeland security,” Carafano said. “We are always going to debate this.”
Nelson said he believes the ongoing discussion should place a premium on the human component of homeland security.
“Many Americans believe in technology as the savior,” Nelson said. “I’m not going to knock my own profession…but there needs to be much more emphasis on the human side, which includes the political and cultural and historical.”