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IT to Fight Terrorism

Will it work, or will it backfire?

By Gary Anthes
November 25, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - David Holtzman says that since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has come to view IT as a key weapon in its war on terrorism. "The administration is currently at work planning a new information system -- one capable of anticipating terrorist acts using artificial intelligence, or 'data profiling' technologies," he says. Some elements of the system would be beneficial, but some go too far and wouldn't be effective in any case, Holtzman argues. Building the system would require these actions, he says:
1. Connecting government databases containing information from customs, immigration, law enforcement, military and tax files, state and local records, political contribution lists, and education and voting records. Building software that bridges government and commercial databases.
2. Linking government and commercial databases, using Social Security numbers. Eventually mandating that all commercial databases have a field for Social Security numbers.
3. Connecting the system to millions of real-time sensors for up-to-the-minute threat assessment. Sensors include chemical and radiation detectors and cameras in public places such as storefronts, highways and airports.
4. Requiring that everyone carry a national ID card, and tying it into a database of biometric information such as fingerprints, retinal scans, face measurements, blood type and DNA.
5. Tracking phone calls, e-mails and the like and generating diagrams of social groupings using "traffic analysis" tools. Predicting behavior based on social interactions and "networks" of individuals who communicate with one another within a group.
6. Building technology that will "guess" what people are thinking and what they might do, using rules-based analyses similar to those used by credit scoring systems.
7. Giving people a secret "threat score" or "loyalty rating" using technology similar to that used by credit card companies.

Holtzman talked with Computerworld about the role of IT in fighting terrorism:

Can IT make a difference in the war on terrorism? What IT is really good at is picking up an information trail for prosecution. Intelligence agencies were able to piece together a lot of the terrorists' comings and goings a day or two after 9/11 by using IT. But I can't imagine what could have been done through IT to stop 9/11.

Yet you say the government is planning a major deployment of IT in the war against terrorism. Is it on the right track? Deploying sensors? Absolutely - radiation detection, biological warfare detection. It seems reasonable that public places and public transportation hubs would be under surveillance. In a few years, solid-state cameras will cost $1 or so, GPS devices will be on a chip, and surveillance will be affordable by anyone. Collecting sensor data



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