Technology represents crucial piece of anti-terrorism puzzle

Technology may prove to be the ultimate weapon in a long and protracted war on terrorism set in motion by the horrors of Sept. 11.

In terms of adoption and utilization of technology and particularly IT, no country in the world is more advanced than the United States and certainly no nation has more going on in terms of creative innovation. IT and technological know-how in general is America’s not-so-secret weapon, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the days since Black Tuesday.

Consider how quickly U.S. intelligence agencies were able to identify those 19 highjackers, who pirated four commercial jets and ultimately brought them down to devastation in New York City and Washington D.C.

Then, over the course of mere days, the story revealed itself in astounding detail. Almost instantly, the world learned not only who these highjackers were, but about their movement days prior to destructive moments and also about the lives they led while living in the U.S.

Within a week of the disaster, a total of more than 50 suspects, material witnesses and the like were arrested and/or detained, and a terrorist network on U.S. soil was revealed.

Information technology clearly had a great deal to do with this rapid turn of events. Through various cyber footprints and other record trails left as the terrorists crossed international boarders, took flying lessons, rented cars and lodgings, even up to the moment they purchased airline tickets, the culprits revealed themselves.

Surveillance cameras in various locations tracked the terrorist movements that day and actually led investigators to the seats where some of the skyjackers sat while waiting to board the ill-fated flights.

Cellular telephones used by doomed passengers calling friends, relatives and police to sound the highjack alert and relate their plight were instrumental in helping investigators piece together details and circumstances. Almost immediately, authorities knew the physical identities of the highjackers, the weapons they used and how the planes were pirated.

Thanks to the technology that touched the lives of these terrorists, the conspiracy of that day did not remain a great mystery for long. Many of their cohorts and associates were quickly rounded up, as the investigation was undoubtedly aided by the use of computerized and communications systems, used to quickly piece together the associations and trails. In less than a week, investigators knew where many of these terrorists had lived and in some cases knew that certain individuals were still maneuvering within the continent – two men were in fact arrested onboard a train travelling from St. Louis to San Antonio, Tex.

The use of IT has helped revealed the events of Sept. 11, helping investigators trace back some six years prior, and showing that the highjackers not only attended flight schools in the U.S., but that many of them lived among “regular” folks, attended community colleges and studied things like engineering. Investigators learned that some of the terrorists came into the country from locations in Germany and Brussels. The abominable history of these highjackers has been linked back to other terrorist crimes including the attack on the USS Cole, the kidnapping of tourists in Yemen.

Sadly these details, associations and links revealed through the concerted use of information technology leaves many wonder why such wherewithal hadn’t been exercised prior to the disasters of Sept. 11.

But there is some hope in knowing that the technology is clearly there and simply needs to be resourcefully applied.

Other powerful technological innovation has come to the fore to assist in determining the details of the crime and to construct an action plan to extract justice. The U.K. government issued a request to ISPs and telecommunication companies to retain all communications-traffic data for the next month, so that the FBI might wade through the digital mass to further advance its investigation. The U.S. Senate has endorsed the expanded use of the FBI e-mail investigation system called Carnivore, in effort to ferret out terrorists and their activities.

Expect diligent Americans to continue using technological resourcefulness to not only reveal cells of terrorists, but to minimize the possibility of future terrorist occurrence. Certainly most Western governments should and probably will move to provide much greater latitude to security agencies and the latter group will undoubtedly look to foster of a renaissance of technological innovation in the fight against terrorism.

As America and the rest of the Western World looks to guard against future atrocities of terrorism, there will undoubtedly be strong encouragement and incentives for vendors and inventors with great ideas to let loose the reins and develop anti-terrorism tools and technologies – particularly around communications, security, surveillance and data tracking technologies.

The world is a mass of free-floating information that is largely disconnected and there is a clear need for this situation to change. Technology that would bring about true seamless connectivity to all sorts of information resources is necessary – despite the civil rights outcry. Protection ranks above all else.

The fruits of these labours will undoubtedly trickle down to business and consumer levels revealing all sorts of practical application. The work done will no doubt greatly benefit all by advancing IT and business processes. But the true measure of success will be in how much safer the world becomes as a result. That is, after all, what’s most important.

McLean is director of enterprise network services research for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. He can be reached at