Technologists vs. Terrorists

Reprinted from CSO

Technology is not a magic bullet that will render impotent all threats. But the nascent security tech revolution will make us safer, and soon.

By Mark P. Mills

October 10, 2006 — CSO —

So, where are the high-tech solutions in this conflict with terrorists, plotters and evildoers? Surely a nation that can produce iPods, cell phones, gigabit data streams, server farms and laser-guided bombs can sniff out some bad stuff without banning every water bottle and toothpaste tube from air travelers. Our soldiers are struggling mightily with a similar problem, trying to detect improvised explosive devices. Putting policy implications and opportunities for political mischief aside, why don't we have high-tech sensors and sniffers, electronic moats and virtual walls to protect citizens and soldiers from bad guys and bad stuff?

That we're on the half-decade anniversary of 9/11 with so little apparent progress is as much a technology challenge as a budget or policy one. In the initial paroxysm to do anything post-9/11, we added protection using what we already knew how to domostly more guards, guns and gates. Obvious to all: We need much better and much more, and in far more places. Less obvious is the near-revolutionary technology progress that has occurred and is about to be deployed. There is a remarkable new generation of solutions coming.

Over the past five years I've visited and talked with hundreds of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the new multibillion-dollar high-tech security enterprise, from Boston to Austin, and San Diego to St Louis. And Silicon Valley too, though in this tech revolution, there is yet to emerge a "Valley" epicenter. While the venerable defense giants dominate big deployments like airports, ports and borders, the lion's share of revolutionary intellectual property and new technologies is emerging from universities, laboratories and small startups. Indeed, the archetype for high-tech security, the X-ray machines offered by GE and L3 for explosives detection in airplane check-baggage, originated in small entrepreneurial companies.

Before 9/11 there were only several dozen security tech companies, and no serious focus from the military-industrial giants. Today, every big player from Honeywell and Boeing to Northrop and Lockheed has a security tech operation. More importantly, there are more than 30,000 small companies in this new 21st-century security enterprise.

As with earlier conflicts, the forces of American capitalism have spooled up. The legion of scientists and engineers that I've met talk passionately about solving the difficult technical problems that detecting so many threats presents. And they do so not just with entrepreneurial enthusiasm, but with genuine patriotism and concern to mitigate threats to fellow citizens.

But there are daunting technological barriers to seeing and sniffing out physical threats & challenges well beyond those faced in creating the hardware and software of the digital information economy. Information bits are just electrons, and their quantum cousins, photonstiny, orderly, simple by comparison to the monstrously larger, more complex and disordered world of atoms and molecules that make up all the bad stuff we want to find and identify. And unlike well-organized electrons in info systems, the atoms and molecules of TNT, acetone or anthrax are not only inconveniently randomly distributed, but also masked by other atoms and molecules and hidden by the complexities of the physical world, not to mention malicious schemes.

So, some of the first-to-emerge new security tools are purely information-based, from communications intercepts and watch-list matching, to biometric identification and smart software in video cameras. But to see, sense and identify materials and objects, we need new classes of detectors using exotic regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, nano-class chemistries, customized semiconductors and micro-fabricated instruments.

Such next-generation sniffers are now possible precisely because of the tech revolution. Riding the coattails of the trillion-dollar-plus digital infrastructure's material, tool and device revolution, engineers have designed, and can soon cost-effectively produce, classes of sensors the likes of which previously were found only in laboratories, or were simply inconceivable. It just took a little time.

The nascent products now emerging, or on the commercialization ramp, can meet the hurdles of low-cost, accurate and exquisite sensitivity to build unobtrusive virtual barriers across and within our society to detect bad, or potentially bad things, in all manner of places and conveyances, unobtrusively, quickly and accurately. Big laboratory-class detection will move to the front lines, shrunken down in size, cost and complexity: a reprise of the mainframe-to-the-desktop, then palmtop, trajectory.

There remain deployment hurdles, not the least of which is customers' ability, whether government or private, to even know new tools exist. Then there's the near-opaque challenge of performance validation: Does reality follow performances claimed? This is one of the most important roles for government: tests, standards, endorsements and seals of approval. Finally there are practicalities in using new tools effectively, often requiring facility redesign, operational and training considerations. All this creates frustrating delays. But these collateral issues are manageable and, importantly, amenable to acceleration now that a security tech revolution is at hand.

No, technology is not a magic bullet that will render impotent all threats. Electronic walls and moats will not obviate the need to take the offense and hunt down enemies. Nor will they diminish the role of strategic diplomacy and effective intelligence to foil dastardly plots and plans. But the nascent security tech revolution will make us safer, and soon.

Mark Mills, co-author of The Bottomless Well, is a cofounding partner in a tech venture fund, and serves as chairman and chief technology officer of ICx Technologies.

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