The Silicon Brigade Signs Up
In 1999, Anthony Sdao launched a startup aimed at catching underage kids trying to buy beer or cigarettes. The idea was to sell identification scanners that could verify whether a driver's license was valid. But that was before the infamy of Sept. 11, 2001.
Now Sdao, CEO of Logix Cos. in Longmont, Colo., is joining the crush of high-tech companies eager to help Washington fight terrorism. For Logix, that has meant rejiggering its handheld scanner so it can do more than authenticate passports and other IDs. It also displays the cardholder's physical characteristics--hair color, height, etc.--so officials can make instant comparisons. "We never even thought of offering this before," says Sdao, who has received inquiries from airports and agencies including the Secret Service. "But when the disaster happened, we thought about what we could do here."
DIGITAL TRAILS. Like Sdao, executives across the U.S. are looking back in horror at the cascade of security and intelligence snafus that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks and rallying to give Washington a hand. This newfound fervor is likely to yield a whole host of techie tools that will be crucial in helping uncover and analyze the digital trails that are at the heart of the fight against terrorism. "We're making sure we have engineering teams responding to all calls," says Oracle Corp. CEO Lawrence J. Ellison, who is pressing for a face-to-face with newly appointed Office of Homeland Security czar Governor Tom Ridge.
Take data mining. IBM (IBM ), Computer Associates International Inc., and a platoon of newcomers have systems for extracting valuable information from raw commercial or scientific data. At the moment, few agencies share information effectively. "Ask what terrorists are active in the U.S., or who called a specific terrorist from another country," says Mark Hurd, president of Teradata Corp., a data-warehousing company that works with the government. The data probably exists, he says, "but the difficulty is in pulling [it] together."
Software maker ClearCross Inc. of Reston, Va., collects and integrates import and export data. The company compiles five separately maintained lists of barred organizations and individuals and sells them to business to prevent U.S. exports from getting into the wrong hands. ClearCross is offering its services free to the Bureau of Export Administration and U.S. Customs, which are constrained by a lack of resources. "Customs only looks at 2% to 4% of goods coming into the country and probably less than 1% of goods being exported," says ClearCross' Peter Baish, a former Customs official.
Data mining can also improve government intelligence. One industry source says the FBI will soon license an application originally developed for sales and manufacturing forecasting. Among other things, the software will flag abnormal behavior, such as purchases of blocks of one-way airline tickets.
The push to tighten borders has landed biometrics in the spotlight. This digital technology positively identifies people by scanning features such as the irises of eyes. Biometric systems match these features, which are unique to each individual, against law-enforcement and other databases. The Federal Aviation Administration is considering trials at U.S. airports of facialrecognition technology, which is already in use in Europe.
At the same time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working with biometrics systems maker Visionics Corp. on a Human-ID-at-a-Distance project. The concept is to identify people at up to 500 feet and determine whether or not they are carrying weapons. Similar but shorter range systems already exist. This technology could be deployed around embassies and other sensitive locations.
The good news is that many of these technologies need only to be tinkered with to address weaknesses in U.S. systems. The bad news, of course, is that it took a catastrophe to realize it.
By Linda Himelstein in San Mateo, with Jim Kerstetter in San Mateo and Heather Green in New York