IEEE Homeland Security Conference redux

The annual IEEE homeland security conference, as one attendee tells me, is the opposite of most of the conferences she attends, which cover in great depth a wafer-thin section of one field. Here, huge amounts of information are crammed into 20-minute presentations that are often too tightly timed even for questions.

Iâ''ve learned some interesting things. The first: the cargo that piggybacks on commercial airplanes does not get screened for nuclear/biochemical contamination. The second: that cargo is way more important to the airline than I am: about 86,000 pieces of mail depart Boston's Logan airport each month. Their originators have paid the airline more dollars per weight than I have. If there are weight restrictions issues, I'll be leaving the plane before that cargo does. (I wonder if the inverse is also true in a crash landing?)

So what do engineers dealing with homeland security worry about? Air safety. Chemical and biological agent detection. The seemingly limitless risks of legacy software (and new software too). Emergency response. Pretty much what you'd expect.

But between the lines, there's a sense of frustration with two things: bureaucracy and technology. "Bureaucracy is forced on you when you're a government contractor," Chief DHS Technology Commercialization Officer Thomas Cellucci said at a business panel this morning. A hostile response to bureaucracy is never surprising, but technology? At an IEEE conference?

It turns out a lot of these guys consider technology solutions the last resort of the imbecile. They tell me in droves that if your idea or your enterprise doesn't work, slathering more layers of technology "solutions" on top is just going to make you really efficient at doing everything wrong. For example, at one panel, an American Science and Engineering, Inc. presenter discussed an x-ray backscatter technique for airline security checkpoints. You may have heard of it. The short version: with their technique, they can create photo-like images of screened passengers, minus clothing. American Science and Engineering has been making the news for this technology since 2000, and they actually won Privacy Internationalâ''s annual â''Big Brotherâ'' award for technology that most invades a personâ''s privacy.

The idea raised a lot of questions about unreasonable search and seizure, with the definition of unreasonable shifting daily with more warnings about terrorists. I can't put it any better than the ACLU put it in a 2002 report:

â''Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implants, catheter tubes, and the size of their breasts or genitals as a prerequisite to boarding a plane.â''

Would you enjoy having a picture of your naked rear end uploaded to some humor or porn site (I leave it to the reader as an exercise to determine which would be worse)? To address these concerns, American Science and Engineering, Inc. *promises* to have the operators somewhere far away, and they *pinky swear* to have only same-sex people looking at your x-ray backscatter centerfold. The presenter dismissed privacy concerns thusly: â''If these images excite you, you have more problems than I can help you with.â''

But after the panel ended, I was relieved to hear two engineers dismiss the entire enterprise. â''Terahertz imaging does the same thing better without the privacy concerns,â'' said one young engineer in a snappy suit. Others expressed doubt that x-ray backscatter was still relevant.

However, itâ''s worth noting that the company just got a contract for the Beijing Olympics. So, if youâ''re going, pack your lead bathing suit.

There are more questions and comments about such topics floating around here than I would have expected. The issues the attendees are discussing outside of the panels makes it seem more like an ACLU conference than IEEE. Frankly, Iâ''m pretty happy about that.

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