The Technological War on Terror
The Technological War on Terror
Use of military troops and covert operations are two major components in the war on terror, but state-of-the-art high technology is also an integral part of missions that hunt down terrorists. Technology provides essential information the CIA and Special Forces need, and new weapons and surveillance techniques have in some situations taken the place of field operatives in the war on terror. Technology is preferred in some situations for a particular key advantage: It can often be employed without putting anyone in physical danger.
The military makes substantial use of modern technology in nearly all its missions. Often several different kinds of technology are used in concert. For example, the presence of a wanted terrorist may be initially detected electronically through such means as cellular or satellite airwaves. Then a more conventional weapon such as a bomb or guided missile may be dropped on that location. In modern warfare, the majority of bombs and missiles fall into the category of what are nicknamed "smart bombs." This refers to explosives that are precisely guided by sensors or remote control devices to a target. Smart bombs, for example, were used at the outset of the war on Iraq when intelligence sources believed they had pinpointed Saddam Hussein's exact location. Unmanned aircraft known as predator drones can find and destroy even a very small moving target. In Yemen in November 2002, five
al-Qaeda operatives, including one American, were killed in their car by such a strike by the CIA.
These very precise weapons are at the highly visible fore-front of modern warfare, but they are really only a small part of technological advances already in place to fight terror or currently under development. Much of the new technology cannot be used as weapons in the conventional sense of physically injuring an enemy; rather, these sophisticated tools expose the enemy and his sources of support, a huge advantage in waging war. Such technological advances not only assist the United States in tracking down terrorists but enable it to provide specific information to foreign countries so they can win the war on terror within their own borders.
Eavesdropping on Terrorists
Telephones, cell phones, and e-mail enable everyone to communicate better, including terrorists, but advanced communication systems have also benefited those who track terrorists down. Sophisticated phone surveillance, for example, is becoming an effective means of locating terrorists. The National Security Agency (NSA), the largest U.S. intelligence agency, is responsible for intercepting and analyzing massive amounts of foreign voice, video, and other communication as well as protecting U.S. government communications. One new software program breaks down speech into phonemes, the units of sound that make up words, and recognizes specific words with 98 percent accuracy, regardless of the speaker's dialect or accent. Its computational speed is amazing; it can search twenty hours of audio recording in less than one second and identify certain words, names, and secret codes likely to be associated with terrorist activity. This software can be loaded on laptops
and used in the field as part of wiretapping and bugging activities.
Terrorists risk exposing themselves through many other forms of communication because of new technologies' ability to intercept messages. For example, before the hunt for bin Laden intensified in the wake of September 11, he was known to use satellite phones. Because it is now quite possible to locate a person by intercepting a satellite call, he has since abandoned this method of communication. Direct communications by e-mail are also very risky because of a number of programs that are used to hone in on and read electronic messages.
More common is terrorists' use of websites to post information, using hidden codes or other markers. According to a
July 2002 CNN report, "Al-Qaeda is said to be computer savvy, and some investigators believe they have found markers or code words that indicate bin Laden is trying to signal supporters he is alive."20 Captured al-Qaeda members have revealed that their organization uses sophisticated technology known as steganography to hide messages inside photographic files on completely unrelated types of websites, including pornographic sites. The photographs are the equivalent of throwing a blanket over something one wishes to hide, making it difficult for the various detection programs to get beyond the photograph to read the encrypted data. Site addresses are changed frequently to minimize the chance of being caught, and the enormity of the Internet makes hidden messages an effective, although complicated, way of communicating.
James Bamford, a prominent expert on national security, says that al-Qaeda's means of communication are "a combination of low-tech communication with supporters, communicating by messaging or couriers, and using the Internet to reach others."21 In other words, al-Qaeda and other groups use whatever seems to be the most effective and least risky means of communication at the moment, from hopping on airplanes to deliver messages in person to carefully and laboriously embedding a message on the Internet. Journalist Daniel Sieberg agrees that "within the veiled and shadowy network of Osama bin Laden's operation, information is likely communicated through both high- and low-tech means, using everything from a web page to a whisper."22
In part, the continued need to communicate face-to-face is due to improvements in counterterrorist technologies. An example of one such breakthrough is the FBI's state-of-the-art computer program known as Carnivore, which is capable of detecting even the most cleverly encrypted messages. Also in this class is the top-secret Echelon system, a satellite-based network that monitors a wide range of worldwide communications, making it harder to communicate.
Even with such advanced technologies, however, it is difficult to stay ahead of online terrorist activity. General Mike Hayden, the director of the NSA, commented after September 11 that "we are behind the curve in keeping up with the global technological revolution,"23 and Bruce Schneier, an expert in cryptology, the art of making and breaking codes, adds that "the years of the military being at the leading edge of technology are gone because it moves so fast. In the real world …everyone has access to the same stuff. The limitations are basically just money."24 Regrettably, money is a commodity bin Laden and al-Qaeda do not lack.
Faces in a Crowd
Eavesdropping is only one technological means to zero in on terrorists. Research aimed at identifying individuals by various methods of facial scanning began in the 1980s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, and use of the technology has grown recently in the hope that it will be helpful in the war on terror. Face recognition, or faceprinting, as this technology is sometimes called, is part of the new "biometrics" industry, which is based on analyzing precise measurements of many parts of the face, such as the bridge of the nose, the corner of the mouth, and the cheekbone. The underlying theory is that no two individuals have exactly the same measurement profile, just as no two have exactly the same fingerprints. Today the two leading companies in this field are Identix and Viisage. Identix software takes up to 80 different measurements of the distance between specific parts of the face to identify an individual. Viisage software takes a different approach, creating 128 images of the face from different aspects and angles, called eigenfaces, to build a multidimensional picture called a face space. Both systems then store those visual images in a database, with which images of unknown individuals can be compared.
Face recognition systems are intended to be used at entrances to prominent buildings or other public places that might be targets for terrorist acts. Specially placed cameras will scan a crowd and send the data to an Identix or Viisage data-base. As people go by, their faces would be "read" and matches with known terrorists could be made. One particularly promising use of such technology is for screening in airports. Trials of various faceprint programs are in place in a few locations around the world, including the airport in Reykjavik, Iceland, a major stopover point for the long transatlantic flights terrorists often must take.
However, even when the conditions are most favorable, when a very clear photo of an individual looking directly into the camera is fed into a database, the technology is not yet reliable. A recent trial of Identix at the airport in Palm Beach, Florida, was a disappointment, as fifteen employees who had volunteered to be identified in the database as terrorists were spotted only 47 percent of the time. Conversely, a passenger was falsely identified as a terrorist by the system at a rate of
once every half-hour. It appears that such face recognition software programs are still far from being able to pick out individuals accurately enough to be useful in the war on terror.
Identifying terrorists by faceprinting will not be made easier simply by improving the system. Terrorists protect their identities very carefully, and photographs, if they exist at all, tend to be of very poor quality. A grainy photograph of a person looking to the side with his or her face partly in shadow is not likely to provide sufficient data to create a database profile. The chances of identifying a person by using this technology are also reduced if the person does not look directly into the camera. Researchers disagree about the extent to which disguises, changes in health, or the aging process can affect face recognition. Plastic surgery also further complicates the issue of recognition of an individual.
Other technologies such as fingerprint databases and eyeprints, which scan the coloration patterns of the iris, have similar drawbacks because terrorists'eyeprints are not likely to be on file already, nor are their fingerprints, unless they have been previously arrested. Even if such files exist, it is unlikely that a terrorist would willingly cooperate in providing the on-the-spot match. For practical reasons, therefore, in addition to technological problems, there are no immediate plans to implement such procedures as eyeprinting passengers before they board planes. Likewise, scenarios in which cameras scan a crowd at the Super Bowl or a World Cup match and identify one face among thousands just before he carries out an act of mass destruction are likely to remain more the stuff of movies than reality for some time to come. Nevertheless, considerable effort is going into developing reliable identification systems, which would be a major tool for tracking down terrorists if their accuracy can be improved.
Ubicomp and Data-Mining
Technologies such as faceprinting are part of what is now being described by the buzzword ubicomp, which stands for "ubiquitous
computing." Ubicomp refers to technology that is all-seeing, or everywhere at once. The central goal of ubicomp is to develop new ways of tracking things and people. Speaking to its extreme pervasiveness and potential to infiltrate daily life, ubicomp is described by journalist Elizabeth Weise as "a gentle dusting of almost microscopic sensors in everything we use, wear, walk on and drive, all calling out to each other in a radio whisper we never hear or see, but that tracks us like a mother following a two year old child."25 Already some ubicomp has entered daily life. Electronic ATM and credit card transactions enable people to purchase items without using cash. Transponders like EZ Pass allow people to travel on pay roads without stopping at toll booths. Technologies communicate instantly to swap data about customer identity and credit card information. "Cookies" placed on computer drives enable websites to greet customers by name when they log on. Navigational and theft recovery systems in cars use satellites to beam information about a car's whereabouts.
To this point ubicomp has been developed primarily by businesses, but recently the value of the data they collect has become apparent to the government. Ubicomp leaves records of what a person has been doing and where he or she has been. This could prove valuable in tracking down terrorists. To make this point, some analysts have re-created the movements and activities of the September 11 terrorists using such things as credit card, travel, and phone records, to show how valuable identifying these patterns in advance could have been.
Ubicomp is part of a larger operation known informally as data mining. Data mining refers to the effort to create a comprehensive profile of every person—citizens and noncitizens alike—in the United States by drawing on a wide range of commercial databases as well as public and private records. The most extensive of these efforts is the proposed Total Information Awareness Project, known as TIA. TIA is directed by retired admiral John Poindexter and is operated through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense.
According to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, "As envisioned, TIA would enable the federal government to collect comprehensive personal data on ordinary people including driving records, high school transcripts, book purchases, medical records, phone conversations, e-mail, and logs of Internet searches."26 Cross-referencing such data with information about citizenship and immigration status might make it possible to monitor people entering an airport or other building and identify who was an American citizen and who was traveling on a passport, who had and had not ever traveled in the Middle East, who had recently been stopped for suspicious activity of any sort, and whose banking activity suggested movement of large amounts of money.
Balancing Privacy with Protection
The almost unlimited potential of data mining to track people has excited those involved with hunting terrorists. It has, however, caused deep concern among many Americans because of what are perceived as erosions of constitutional rights, most notably the right to privacy. Most people have become accustomed to providing personal information to businesses, which seek to attract and keep customers through data collection, and most people accept without question government tracking devices such as social security numbers. But most people strongly object to the collection of detailed personal data by very powerful government entities such as the Department of Defense for the ultimate purpose of catching individuals engaging in illegal activities. Though many might argue that a person who is doing nothing wrong has nothing to fear, concern is growing that creating detailed databanks on even the most law-abiding of citizens is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy because it arbitrarily includes people there is no reason to suspect of anything.
TIA is at this stage only a controversial proposal by the Bush administration, not an implemented program. Its progress has been slowed by the vigorous objections of many legislators and powerful groups representing a wide spectrum of liberal and conservative viewpoints. Susan Graham, a Republican senator from Maine and head of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, says that it "raises extraordinary concerns about individual privacy."27 Former House majority leader Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas, called TIA "the only thing that is scary to me."28 Coming from members of Bush's own party, these objections are an indication of strong feeling that TIA violates basic privacy rights. To date, TIA has been stalled by congressional refusal to allocate funds for it, but the Bush administration has not abandoned the idea.
Terrorists move all too easily in a free society, and few would deny that it is important to use the vast powers of computers to aid in tracking down and apprehending individuals intent on violence. How this can be done without undercutting the public's rights to live without undue government interference will be one of the great challenges of the continuing war on terror.