Challenging propositions

In the war against fascism more than 50 years ago, the United States prevailed in large part because of the enormous might of American industry. Now the country finds itself locked in a new conflict in which the terms of the battle — from the shadowy front lines to the sinister weapons involved — are unlike any before.

American industry and determination are once again being summoned, but this time the effort reflects a world in which innovation and mastering information are as important as forging metal into tanks and bombs.

It would be foolish to think that computers alone can protect the country from terrorism, like some sort of silver bullet. However, there is no doubt that, for better or worse, technology will be central to the fight — as a defensive shield, as an offensive weapon and, given our country's social and economic reliance on it, as a target for our enemies.

With this in mind, the government is calling on industry and academia to develop new technologies that can serve the country in the fight against terrorism. Many of these tools were identified in a recent National Academies report, "Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism." In this special Federal Computer Week report, we examine several areas that illustrate the broad applicability of technology to this fight.

For example, at the foundation of the country are the systems that carry such essentials as clean water and electricity. Currently, we lack the tools to understand the relationships among these systems, such as how damage to the power grid might affect the water supply. So, efforts are under way to develop computer models that illustrate those interactions, with the goal of gaining insight that could be used to better respond to emergencies and reduce hidden vulnerabilities.

Computer systems and networks are also vulnerable to attack, and when they've been damaged, it is often difficult to restore them to their pre-attack state. Thus, advanced tools for system decontamination and reconstitution are another area of research, with applications governmentwide.

Meanwhile, keeping an eye on potential threats is the intelligence community's job, but in this case, technology has been a mixed blessing. It has allowed agencies to collect far more information than they can analyze. Among the many tools being developed in this field is software that can translate speech from other languages into English on the fly and convert recorded speech into data that can be searched and analyzed.

The effectiveness of any of these tools is directly related to how well people work with the systems. Improvements will come not only from new interface designs, but also from a better understanding of how people absorb information, make decisions and follow through with action.

Technology, like freedom, is both an asset and a liability for this country. Using one to strengthen the other is the only choice we have.

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