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Weaving a Wireless Safety Net

Relying on the pervasive technology network for security is potentially perilous when the technology fails.
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The images of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 exist in video files and collective gray matter everywhere. Hindsight is often a favored perspective for many commentators, eager to wax widely on the ways of the wronged. That infamous day in history proved no exception when earlier this summer the 9-11 Commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (see www.9-11commission.gov/), sought to hear from witnesses of the attacks and attempt to amass some kind of measured explanation, some recipe of remedy, to make the public believe it could not happen again.

The commission promised no finger pointing, just fact finding. We know only the terrorists responsible for that day can be blamed for the devastation. But as the commission, follow-up investigations, anecdotal information, and reporting have highlighted, there were some weak links that morning—connections that still exist and must be strengthened.

There was an unlikely contributor to the chaos that ensued after the terrorist plot was set in motion. This agent had no shoulders on which to balance culpability, no mouth to utter apologies. That’s because it was technology: it is generally agreed that communications failed miserably that day.

The destruction of landline phone infrastructure—in New York City, Verizon reportedly lost one of its five switching centers that housed some 200,000 lines—squashed the ability to make calls over traditional telephones. This vulnerability of landline equipment quickly made apparent the need for more secure, more durable centers in which equipment was housed and to beef up security access to those buildings. Then there were those infuriating fast busy signals heard by people desperately hitting the redial key to try to reach their loved ones in the New York area. The telephone system was jammed. Could this, too, be corrected?

The downed and/or clogged telephone lines shined a spotlight on wireless technology. Stories of poignant calls made over mobile phones confirmed the importance of having a wireless handset available at all times. After that day, school children were allowed to take their cell phones to schools "just in case," and mobile phones increasingly became the only phones for many people. The increased popularity of wireless phones gave momentum to the movement that had already begun before Sept. 11; a renewed interest in updating the wireless phone system. Like implementing the E911, or emergency 911, system that would let a public safety answering point know from where a caller to a 911 number was calling from (see www.fcc.gov/911/ enhanced/). Wireless service providers and public answering safety points were working with renewed interest to implement the technology to make this happen. The FCC has mandated that the technology is implemented in two phases, with Phase I requiring wireless operators, once it gets a request from the Public Safety Answering Point to provide the phone number of the wireless caller as well as the antenna from which the call was processed. Phase 2 of the E911 plan goes a step further, requiring the wireless operator to pinpoint a caller’s location within 50 to 100 meters. The deadline for fulfillment of Phase 2 is December 31, 2005.

The technical issues that have come to the forefront have propelled interest in upgrading communications systems and implementing more technically driven public safety networks.

Another issue involving cell phones: the too-short battery life. Manufacturers experienced consumer demand that their mobile phones more efficiently manage power consumption. While the cell phone industry has been loading up on the bells and whistles of functionality on a handset, the power of the battery and ability for a wireless phone to make a call is crucial.

But while wireless phones got notice for their value, the walkie-talkies used by members of public safety organizations on Sept. 11 received intense scrutiny for their dismal performance. Walkie-talkies used by firefighters were blamed for not receiving signals that carried critical instructions to vacate the building that might have saved lives that day.

According to reports, the commission attributed problems of the two-way radios to management mistakenly thinking repeaters—or a booster for wireless signals—were damaged during the attack. Because of this, they instructed firefighters to use another, less powerful, channel for communication. The result was that fewer firefighters heard the instructions on their mobile devices.

But some family members of those safety personnel who perished Sept. 11 have attributed some blame to Motorola, the maker of the walkie-talkies that were in use that day, for having manufactured and sold equipment that might have been sub par. Motorola attributes the technical meltdown of the radios to the overloaded channels. A $5 billion lawsuit was filed in January against Motorola alleging that the equipment Motorola sold was faulty. The suit is pending an appeal after it was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge in April, citing the Victim Compensation Fund made such civil suit claims ineligible.

Also gleaned from that day, many close to the situation reported the lack of communication between the various public safety organizations, including fire and police departments. The two separate entities didn’t have a cohesive network to communicate to each other.

What came through loud and clear: fixing faulty communications and putting in cutting-edge technology would have to be a front-burner issue today, when terrorism threats and color-coded warnings from the government have became part of the new culture’s lexicon. It simply was deemed unacceptable for emergency responders to have equipment that might fail.

The technical issues that have come to the forefront since then have propelled interest in upgrading communications systems, and implementing more technically driven public safety networks. Politicians have become involved in the action: for example, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) proposed legislation that would support a nationwide interoperability system for first-responders to be implemented within five years. The legislation, dubbed The Connecting the Operations of National Networks of Emergency Communications Technologies (CONNECT) for First Responders Act of 2004, would provide a $5 billion grant and create an Office of Wireless Public Safety Interoperable Communications under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. It was introduced just as the 9-11 Commission was holding hearings in New York to look into these failures of communications.

"It’s time to close the communications gap that left so many New York firefighters and police without hope on September 11th," said Lowey in a statement. "Interoperable equipment will protect our first responders and, in turn, enable them to better protect the public during emergencies. Congress must step up to the plate and provide the vital resources and tools our first responders need."

Across the U.S., and the world, municipalities are finding budgets for improved technology, not only to support police and fire departments, but to aid public works and even provide streams of revenues from citizens looking to access the Internet on the fly. But in many instances, municipalities are starting to see technology as a way to help curtail crime on a local basis.

New Orleans, for example, conducted a pilot test this past spring using a wireless surveillance system throughout the city that was aimed at helping increase police awareness of crime. Deploying Wi-Fi networks meshed together throughout the city, video cameras can send images. Police, in turn, can obtain moving pictures of crimes as they happen, and access these images from their laptop computers or other mobile devices. With upgrades to the infrastructure, the Wi-Fi network equipment supplier, Tropos Networks, says the police can access this data even while traveling in their squad cars, roaming between the Wi-Fi cells. Tropos Networks also supplied equipment for a similar system in Chaska, MN. Through a wireless Internet service provider owned by the city, the network will be accessible not only to police, but to local government and even to residents. Another Tropos-powered wireless video surveillance system via its Wi-Fi mesh network architecture was set up for June’s media-circus trial of Scott Peterson, who was charged with murdering his wife and unborn son. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department was deploying the system, which comprised Sony video cameras atop rooftops communicating to Tropos’ wireless network, to patrol the immediate area of the courthouse.

In London, police were planning to deploy up to 50 cameras backed by wireless networks in the SoHo area by the end of 2004, reported Newsweek. The video images taken from the portable wireless system, which can be taken down and reinstalled in a different location, were said to have vivid enough clarity to hold up as evidence in legal proceedings.

Municipalities are taking up where airports have already started. Almost weekly, another wireless service provider announces it has helped to deploy a Wi-Fi network inside an airport terminal in an effort to derive revenue from business travelers who must access the Internet from their wireless-enabled laptop computers between flights. These same Wi-Fi networks that are helping to generate revenues are being used by the airport for internal business.

Technology is, more than ever, a foot soldier in the war on terror and on local crime. The age-old battle of privacy rights versus more security will take on new passions.

Also on the docket: using wireless networks and wireless technologies to help keep tabs on passenger and baggage identities. Wireless communication, like RFID or radio frequency identification, is being sought for passenger identification purposes, most recently and urgently as part of a new passport—to ensure a passenger really is who he says he is. The U.S. Department of State is trialing RFID-chip encoded passports that house biometric capabilities mirrored to the facial features of the passport owner, reported Network World Identity Management in late May. The trial of innovative and informative passports will be conducted this fall, the same timing as trials being conducted by many European countries. "Eventually, all countries issuing passports will have to follow suit, according to the rules adopted by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)," the report states. "Some countries, such as The Netherlands, will also include fingerprint data on the chip although that isn’t a requirement."

Even pets traveling internationally will require being equipped with technology that confirms their identity. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union in May stipulated that animals must have either a tattoo or electronic ID system, and within eight years, all will have to follow the latter. The animal microchips contain a history of vaccinations and other veterinary procedures and conditions treatments, say experts. In order to be able to glean information from these microchips, ports of entry must have wireless scanners available. I’ve wondered before, and I’ll wonder again: Can microchips in humans, read by scanners, with the information being shared over Wi-Fi networks, really be that far behind?

Technology is, more than ever, a foot soldier in the war on terror and on local crime. The age-old battle of privacy rights (how will citizens really feel about having surveillance cameras peeking out from building ledges on Main Street?) versus more security will take on new passions. There’s no dodging the fact that networks are a part of our lives, with Wi-Fi networks installed in coffee shops and airports and everywhere in between. And there’s no doubt that hackers and bad guys who want to exploit that dependance on technology will be able to do so—witness the havoc and economic loss that resulted from the Microsoft-attacking Sasser virus, and more recently the devious virus aimed at online banking.

So while technology is being implemented all around us to make us more secure, it’s going to require a mindful approach to deployment. Because the more dependant we become on the technology network around us for security, the more devastated we’ll be when that technology does something truly human: err.

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