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Red Herring July 7, 2005

Using Tech to Thwart Terror

More technology is in the pipeline to battle terrorism, but skeptics question if it will be enough.

The four explosions that killed at least 37 and wounded hundreds on London's transport services Thursday will inevitably spark calls for new technology aimed at thwarting a low-tech terrorists.

While there will surely be plenty of skeptics arguing that technology will never foil bombers exploiting the openness of a free society, research proceeds on production of new chemical sensors, surveillance cameras, face-recognition software, ID cards, phone monitoring systems, and other high tech anti-terrorism measures.

In 2004, one month before the Madrid rail bombings killed almost 200 people, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s advanced research division requested proposals for devices that can quickly detect explosives in abandoned baggage or on the body of a suicide bomber. However, the $5-million project has not yet resulted in tools in the hands of law enforcement.

It was still not clear on Thursday if the London attack was the work of suicide bombers or terrorists who planted bombs and then fled. To help figure it out, Scotland Yard is no doubt poring over video recordings culled from the thousands of surveillance cameras London placed throughout the city in the 1990s.

And more video cameras will likely be put in place to help keep an eye on the public. The global market for video surveillance will grow to $8.6 billion in 2010 from around $4 billion in 2003, according to forecasts from Frost & Sullivan in February.

While the cameras used in most cities are invaluable forensic tools in the aftermath of a crime, they alone are not very good at preventing crimes.

Companies such as ObjectVideo in Reston, Virginia, are working on intelligent surveillance that uses software to detect unusual patterns such as abandoned bags or suspicious driving. Cameras outfitted with such software are already installed in ports and military bases in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Some feel, however, governments are paralyzed by the debate over what should be done to better protect civilians from terrorism on public transit like buses and rail lines.

The Madrid attacks, however, were not followed by an appreciable increase in spending designed to secure mass transport from bombings, said John Pike, the president of GlobalSecurity, a defense industry think tank and research outfit. 

“There was a (U.S. Congressional) hearing after the Madrid attacks last spring and then it just sort of went away,” said Mr. Pike.

Low Tech

If you’re waiting for intelligent surveillance to mesh with face-recognition programs and other software to secure your local subway stop, don’t hold your breath, said Doron Pely, vice president of publications for Homeland Security Research, a homeland security market research company.

Such devices can trigger false alarms. The ability of the gizmos to work with acceptable false positive rates in a busy transportation hub is many years away. Even a 1 percent false positive rate in a place like Grand Central Station could bring a mass transport network to its knees.

Stopping terrorists before they get anywhere near a subway entrance or bus stop is also a critical mission of homeland security. The United States National Security Agency monitors global cell phone and Internet traffic for suspicious phrases. DARPA, the Pentagon’s weird science department, is asking researchers to develop a machine that can instantly transcribe, translate, and prioritize some of the volumes of overheard chatter western spy agencies gather every day.

Companies like Nexidia, a voice recognition software company in Georgia, are developing programs that can sift through thousands of hours of recorded conversations hunting for key words. Research firm Gartner put the worldwide 2004 speech recognition software market at $140 million.

But monitoring cell phone chatter won’t stop every would-be terrorist. The US-VISIT program uses digital finger scans and photographs to try to safeguard U.S. borders. The biometric program goes a step farther than the measures taken by most other countries.

Still, there are holes in the net. In February, Congress’ research arm, the Government Accountability Office, found that US-VISIT is not well managed and could be a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars.

The best defense may remain low tech. Mr. Pely pointed to Israel> as an example of a country that uses “warm bodies” over high tech to defend rail lines. In a country the size of Israel, posting well-trained soldiers at the entrance of every train station to look every passenger in the eye is possible. But it’s unrealistic in huge metropolises like New York or London.

Without the human element, says Mr. Pely, bombings like the one in London Thursday will be impossible to prevent no matter what technology is used.

 


Copyright 2005, Red Herring, Inc.