Post-9/11 antiterror technology: A report card

news analysis As Sept. 11 nears, examines five useful ways of improving security--and five that should raise eyebrows.

This is part one of a two-part series that looks back at the five years since Sept. 11, 2001. To read the second installment, which reviews privacy and government secrecy, click here.

news analysisFive years after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the federal government's record of adopting antiterrorism technologies has been mixed.

Puffers, chemical scanners and biometrics devices are appearing in airports. Radio-frequency chips are being inserted in U.S. passports. The U.S. Army has developed machine-gun toting robots for deployment in Iraq.

But the FBI is still struggling with computer systems that are at least half a decade out of date, Homeland Security is having similar problems with inspections of shipping containers, and it's hardly clear that RFID-equipped passports are any safer from duplication by an identity thief or enterprising member of al-Qaida.

CNET has compiled a list of 10 technologies, five that should be adopted more speedily to help in homeland security efforts--and five that raise at least some privacy and security concerns. Read on for the details.

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1. Going wireless: Ever since cameras on cell phones became popular a few years ago, millions of Americans have zapped grainy snapshots back and forth wirelessly. Now the chronologically backward folks at the FBI finally are entering the 21st century too.

An FBI pilot program launched last month in Washington, D.C., and New York City is designed to outfit field agents with wireless technology. They'll be able to take digital photos of a suspect, upload the images to a broadband wireless-enabled laptop, and e-mail it off to other on-the-go agents. They, in turn, can view the suspect's image--complete with that day's garb and haircut length--on a BlackBerry handheld device.

This is hardly a novel idea, of course. But it's still a useful upgrade to the FBI's existing technology, says Frederick Brink, who's in charge of the special operations division at the FBI's New York City field office.

For the hundreds of agents now trying out the mobile technology, "they don't necessarily have to use a telephone or call in, they can access this information directly in the course of their normal duties," Brink said. The FBI's central information technology outfit would like to expand the so-called "mobility pilot program" to every FBI field office, but it has not set a timetable. As for success stories from the unwired FBI set, Brink said to check back in a month or two. But for now, he said, "the feedback is already very, very positive. In general terms, the agents love this capability."

2. Better search technology: The private sector has been years ahead of the FBI not just in wireless technology, but also in search. Internet search engines have been around since Archie in 1990, followed by the original Wandex, a Web search tool developed in 1993 at MIT.

The FBI finally got a rudimentary Web-based search tool in 2004 in the form of its Investigative Data Warehouse, or IDW. It lets users (more than 13,000 people have been approved so far) to use a single Web-based front end to comb about 650 million records--ranging from intelligence wires to terrorist watch lists to no-fly lists--across multiple government agencies, including the State Department and Homeland Security. Agents say it acts as a "one-stop shop" for wide-ranging information that takes an average of three seconds to five seconds to return results.

Unfortunately, the IDW's records aren't updated in real time. Instead, the system relies on copies of documents that must be "affirmatively uploaded into the warehouse" by participating agencies, according to an 2005 auditor's report. Depending on who's in control of the data, that can happen anywhere from daily to weekly to monthly to quarterly--although in an emergency situation, updates can be sped up to hourly, FBI Chief Information Officer Zal Azmi told reporters last week.

"Right now, we don't have that Google-like search capacity to go (directly) into databases of different agencies," Azmi acknowledged. Because "timeliness of the data is critical to us in our mission," he added, a real-time "portal" is the goal, but it is "a long way from being least a couple more years."

3. Inspecting cargo containers: Could terrorists smuggle a nuclear, biological or radiological explosive device into the U.S. by hiding it in a cargo container? There's reason to think so: 11 million cargo containers arrive at U.S. seaports each year, and only a small percentage are physically inspected by Homeland Security agents (click for PDF).

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of Homeland Security, does have a computerized modeling system that's supposed to help identify which cargo containers should be inspected based on intelligence from sources including the CIA. It's called the Automated Targeting System, or ATS, and has been deemed a failure by government auditors in a report this year (click for PDF). They concluded that Homeland Security "has not yet put key controls in place to provide reasonable assurance that ATS is effective at targeting oceangoing cargo containers with the highest risk of containing smuggled weapons of mass destruction."

Fixing ATS would be a good first step. So would making greater use of noninvasive methods of scanning containers and preventing unions from derailing security methods. The West Coast longshoremen's union prohibits its members from driving through gamma ray scanners, even though Homeland Security officers do it routinely and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the low exposure level. Union leaders won't allow members to drive through even more promising systems using neutron-based detectors either.

4. Smarter translation software: Intelligence agencies around the world continue to face a shortage of speakers of Arabic and other languages often associated with terrorist groups. Translation can also be time-consuming.

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