Technology's limits

Why wasn't technology of greater use to us in preventing the tragedy and crimes of Sept. 11? The finger-pointing is under way. Those of us in high-tech perhaps have a better feel for the problem.

          For some of the public and for the FBI it is a tale told through cell phones. Passengers on doomed flights calling loved ones to say goodbye and to secretly give out information they understood could be used in the ensuing investigation. A stewardess relays the seat numbers in which two of the terrorists were sitting.

          It was a similar story inside the World Trade Center, with men and women relating what it was like before saying I love you and goodbye.

          Why wasn't technology of greater use to us in preventing the tragedy and crimes of Sept. 11? The finger-pointing is under way.

          Those of us in high-tech perhaps have a better feel for the problem. As I have said before in this column, all of us at one time or another have probably been guilty of talking about what technology may do some day, thus blurring the line between what's possible and what's real. The public and the general press pick up on what's possible and often assume these systems are already in place.

          The public asks why, if at least two of the terrorists were on the Immigration and Naturalization Service watch list, they weren't identified when they checked in at the airport under their own names.

          Those of us in high-tech understand that the INS database doesn't talk to the American Airlines or the United Airlines databases. I am not even sure that the list kept by the INS is linked to similar lists probably developed by the FBI, CIA, or National Security Agency.

          Could the databases be linked? Of course they could. Could the terminal at the airport check-in respond in a fraction of a second with an alert saying this person needs to be questioned further when the name is typed in? The technology exists but obviously is not yet deployed for these security situations.

          The Australian government, with the help of American company SeeBeyond Technology, is creating a Master Person Index to allow its socialised healthcare system to identify and access the medical records of any citizen brought to a hospital for treatment. This is not a single, monolithic database but rather the creation of an index that involves linking and integrating the many hospital-patient databases. Business intelligence is also used to match records to the right patient in the event that only partial information of an accident victim is available and a victim is unable to identify himself or herself.

          But the name, Master Person Index, sounds scary -- rubbing Americans the wrong way. If we created a similar system, I am certain we could not use a phrase like theirs. We are very wary -- and rightly so -- of any concept that smacks of Big Brother watching us.

          The struggle between the need to gather information versus the right to privacy will be one of the long-term repercussions of the events of September 11. Only as the coming months and years unroll before us will we be able to look back and say whether or not our special kind of democracy -- unlike the World Trade Center twin towers -- has withstood the heat of these terrorist attacks.

          Schwartz is an editor at large in InfoWorld US' news department. Get this column free via email each week. Sign up here. Send email to Ephraim Schwartz.

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Tags IT systems

More about American AirlinesBrother International (Aust)FBIINSNational Security AgencySeeBeyondSeeBeyond TechnologyTechnologyUnited Airlines

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