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After the Fall

Looking for answers from technology and technologists

3 min read

Technology was everywhere in the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the World Trade Center towers in New York City on 11 September. There was the technological extravagance of the Twin Towers themselves--financial exclamation points, beckoning beacons for terrorists, or symbols of world peace, depending on your geopolitical point of view. There was astonishment at the terrorists' choice of weapons and the ease with which they turned four large commercial airliners into ultraprecise cruise missiles. There was the tsunami of cell phone, digital camera, and Internet activity that sent audiovisual gigabytes of horror around the world, allowing people in London and Tokyo to view events as they unfolded. Even passengers in the doomed fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania got news of the other three hijackings and apparently took action against their captors.

And in the aftermath, there were the calls for family members to bring in toothbrushes and cell phone numbers so that DNA forsenics could be used to identify body parts and frequency "sniffers" to find functioning cell phones--and perhaps their owners--amid 625 000 tons of rubble. Since the attacks, there have been calls for more electronic surveillance, more counterterrorism technologies, and more defense machinery to seek out and destroy this kind of savage malevolence.

The technology leadership of the world, so widely represented among the membership of the IEEE, has been hard hit. It is likely that many people in many places will know someone who has perished when all the counting has finished. At the time of this writing, 17 September, the dead are reported to include employees from Akamai Technologies, Applied Materials, BEA Systems, Cisco Systems, 3Com, Compaq Computers, ECOlogic, eSpeed, Genzyme, Marsh, Metrocall, MRV Communications, Netegrity, Oracle, The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, Raytheon, Rubios, Sun Microsystems, Verizon, and Vividence. One-hundred thirty-five people attending a Risk-Waters Financial Technology Congress are missing. And the rolls are far from complete.

We will look to political and spiritual leaders for direction, but the technology community, in the midst of its great sorrow, must also help lead the fight against terrorism. We'll need more creative and sophisticated technical solutions. And, yes, more human intelligence. But most of all, wisdom. To be able to mark clearly the border between justice and vengeance. To work toward a deeper understanding of how much security depends on technology and how much on our relationships with other people and nations. And to help identify and promulgate the elusive, but all-important, social, political, and moral methods of digging out the tangled human roots of terrorism.

Why Biological Warfare?

Our cover story, "Biological Warfare Canaries: Can New Biosensors Save Us From Deadly Attack?" by Christopher Aston, was in the works long before the events of 11 September, in anticipation of the Fifth Review Conference of the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention, which will convene on 19 November in Geneva.

It has taken on added significance in light of those events; indeed, as we watched the World Trade Center towers collapse about 4 km southwest of IEEE Spectrum's offices in New York City, it occurred to many of us that the next round of terrorism could certainly involve planes and small nuclear weapons or biological agents.

At the moment, these so-called weapons of mass destruction are out of reach of such terrorist organizations as Osama bin Laden's Qaeda group only because of the knowledge infrastructure and money required to build and test them, and besides, it has just been effectively demonstrated that large-scale damage can be inflicted with "low-tech" weapons and careful planning.

Nevertheless, these threats must be addressed in anticipation of their development and eventual implementation by terrorist groups, as Spectrum Senior Editor Glenn Zorpette points out in his commentary, "A New World of Terror".

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