Tech Vendors: Don't Curb Individual Liberties for Security

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

A group of high-tech vendors warn that government agencies should tread lightly with increasingly sophisticated security technology.

Security technology is growing increasingly sophisticated—so much so that computers can now identify and track the movements, physical characteristics, and chemical traces of people without much help from human beings. Over time, those processes will become even more automated, making it easier to protect airports and other facilities against disasters and possible terrorist attacks.

But a group of high-tech vendors warned Wednesday that such technology should be carefully used, particularly by government agencies. Speaking at a conference on regional homeland security in San Francisco, the chief science officer of Hewlett-Packard said that current security technology is far more advanced than people's thinking on how to use it.

"The single most important thing to keep in mind is the values of our society as embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights," said Dr. Stephen Squires, who spent several years working for the National Security Agency (NSA) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) before joining HP. "There's no point in winning the war if we wire a surveillance system into our infrastructure, and our children's children grow up thinking that's the way the world is."

Computer infrastructure and physical security are merging, said Rich Anderson, vice president of marketing and business development for GE Interlogix. Vendors like GE are pulling together traditionally separate systems for access control and building management into an "intelligent building" that can be controlled by the IT department over secure networks.

Anderson demonstrated a video camera that can differentiate people from animals and other objects, allowing a computer to track a person across several cameras, or fields of view. He said the system quickly becomes so complex that an airport security guard, for example, would have trouble tracking a person because he couldn't be sure which camera to start with.

He also showed software that can pull up video associated with reports triggered by building alarms, and cited a recent acquisition by GE—an Ion Trap Mobility Spectrometer that detects trace elements of explosives or narcotics. He said the machine is capable of finding a packet of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, although he acknowledged that false positives are a danger with such sensitive technology.

Computers are analyzing an increasing variety of disparate information, said Dr. Larry Capots of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, and will pull together images with data from biological sensors and acoustic sensors to establish trends. Capots told how he thought a product demonstrated earlier at the conference by IBM would evolve.

A police officer who saw an accident could not just log onto the Web, report the accident, and pore through various agency databases to summon help, as IBM showed. In the future, according to Capots, the officer could call on a "subnetwork"--transporting her exact location via GPS through her cell phone, or establishing a connection to a programmable radio that could determine her identity and establish receivers and decoders for secure communication.

"Technology is the rails for the homeland defense train," Capots told the audience, which included national laboratories, police, banks, utilities, and city and county agencies. "We can put the rail down and take you anywhere you want to go. But you must think about how the global problem is to be solved."

Squires, meanwhile, called on Silicon Valley to rise to the challenge of making socially acceptable products. He said the valley is now the center for innovation on security technology, due in large part to the under-funding of government agencies after the U.S. won the Cold War, a condition that he said also accounts for poor Internet security.

"The challenge to Silicon Valley is to [do surveillance] so our children's children are proud of what we've done, and we're not delivering 1984 to them decades late and way over budget," Squires said.

The conference was sponsored by the Bay Area Economic Forum, Bay Area Council, Association of Bay Area Governments, and the Bay Area Science and Innovation Consortium. About 250 people were signed up to attend.

This article was originally published on 2003-10-02
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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