Invasive technologies don't fight terrorism

After last year's September 11 terrorist attacks people have been willing to accept invasive technological measures because they help us feel safer, even though they won't thwart terrorism says author and lawyer Jeffrey Rosen.

          After last year's September 11 terrorist attacks people have been willing to accept invasive technological measures because they help us feel safer even though they won't thwart terrorism, says author and lawyer Jeffrey Rosen.

          Speaking at the BioSecurity summit that is running concurrently with the Comdex trade show, Rosen said that studies about human responses to fear indicate that people will allow invasions of privacy when they are frightened. Databases that track personal information and attempt to link such data to terrorists, imaging machines that look through clothing to screen airplane passengers and biometrics technology aren't likely to help capture terrorists, he said.

          "If we knew who the terrorists were, we'd go out and get them," said Rosen, who is an associate professor of law at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and writes about legal issues for a number of magazines. "The goal (of such technology) isn't to prevent terrorism, it's to make people feel better."

          But it is possible to develop technologies that do not erode privacy or impinge on freedoms and would accomplish the goal of surveillance and tracking, he said. For instance, the company that created the "naked machine" now in use to screen passengers at Orlando International Airport in Florida is working on a version that would show anything like a weapon concealed under clothing, but would scramble the image of the person's body so that the screener would not view a nude image. Biometrics that search for fingerprint or iris matches with known terrorists but are then not kept in any sort of database repository are another possibility, as is general surveillance that blocks faces of those being watched and instead monitors general movements, he said.

          Calling Britain "privacy Chernobyl," Rosen said that the surveillance there has veered out of control in recent years, with the average person photographed as many as 300 times in the course of a normal day. Cameras popped up in many public places as a response to terrorism and became more prevalent after two young boys were arrested in the kidnapping and death of a two-year-old. They were recorded with the younger boy on a surveillance camera, but it wasn't that technology that led to their arrest -- they were captured after they bragged to friends about what they'd done, Rosen said.

          In what he termed the "most dramatic" recent proposal the possibility of a Total Information Awareness system has been raised. That system "looks something like the British system on steroids" and would create databases of private information that would be combined and be accessible to government agencies that would data mine and create profiles of individuals trying to match those with profiles of terrorists.

          Though that system is intrusive, Oracle is working on a database system that would provide traceable information, but that would not identify individuals, he said. Such a database is different from the one Oracle chairman Larry Ellison proposed just after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Ellison then outlined a national identification system that would be linked to a "grand, centralised database." That proposal presents "a great threat to privacy," Rosen said.

          Overall, his talk was pessimistic, though he tried to end his remarks -- which were part of a larger discussion on healthcare responses in times of crises -- on an upbeat note. "What is there to be optimistic about? It is possible," to develop technologies that offer protection and security and do not invade privacy or erode civil rights, he said. But fighting terrorism still must rely on human intelligence, hunches, luck and observation, Rosen said.

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