Friday, August 21, 2009


Many countries noted the 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks as an indication of weaknesses in security and have commissioned new procedures and technologies to root out potential criminal activity and secure buildings and borders. But can these technologies succeed in the real world? Will they really deter terrorists or merely invade the civil liberties of the people they’re intended to protect?
One new development is in biometric ID – identification based on recognising individuals by their unique physical or behavioural traits. Our unique physical traits relate to our body shapes and patterns – they include face, fingerprint, hand, iris and even DNA. Behavioural traits include signature, keystroke and voice recognition. While behavioural identification is already widely in use, most new research is going into physical ID that can’t easily be altered or forged.
American border security already requires international visitors to scan their fingerprints when entering and leaving the country. Passports with electronic chips carrying biometric details have recently been launched in Britain, and there is continuing talk about introducing biometric ID cards. ‘Different forms of biometric technologies are still emerging – they can add layers of security, but there are political social and practical issues surrounding their implementation,’ says biometrics consultant Clive Reedman.
Clive is working on the implementation of British biometric passport systems and is impressed with the way things have been done in America: ‘The US fingerprinting system has been well thought out so that the process is fast and smooth, staff are well-trained and visitors aren’t too inconvenienced.’ But he warns that not all systems have been this successful. ‘There’s an over-assumption that the public will be able to use these technologies, but their human interface aspect is currently poor.’ Clive believes that biometric systems will only really work if they’re fast, easy to use and reliable.
Iris scanning seems to be one biometric technology that’s meeting these criteria. Iris recognition has already been tried out at London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam's Schiphol airports and is currently being used for border security between Afghanistan and Pakistan by the UN. The technology can identify someone within 1-2 seconds, even through glasses or contact lenses. It can also tell the difference between a ‘live’ iris and a dead one, so seems to be impossible to fool.

Science and Terrorism

We use science and technology for the management and improvement of our lives – yet it appears that our increasing technical sophistication also enables small groups and individuals to cause great harm.
In 1605, plotters failed in their attempt to kill James I of England and most of the artistocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder. 1754 saw traders in Pennsylvania create a smallpox epidemic in the local Native Indian population by giving them blankets exposed to the virus. In 1992, the city of London was bombed three times. 1995 was the year in which the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked the Tokyo subway with Sarin gas and in the USA a government building in Oklahoma City was destroyed with an explosive composed of 2300 kg of easily obtainable fertilizer and nitromethane. Most infamously, in 2001, 19 terrorists armed with box-cutting knives hijacked four commercial aircraft in the USA and used the planes as flying bombs to destroy the World Trade Center and attack the Pentagon.