How Technology Fights Terrorism

Face recognition software is making a leap forward from 2-D to 3-D scanning.
Face recognition software is making a leap forward from 2-D to 3-D scanning. Courtesy of Product Reviews

Yesterday we reflected on 9/11 and honored the thousands killed in New York, Washington, D.C. and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was an intensely personal day, one that crescendoed into a chorus of shared emotion and remembrance.

The commitment to ensure that such a catastrophic act of terror never happens again involves not just preventing a repeat of the past, but also imagining what else is possible and making sure that doesn’t happen either.

This has spurred innovation in many directions, from processing and analyzing data at speeds we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago to devising nearly foolproof recognition software to designing skyscrapers that can survive the level of devastation that brought down two of America’s tallest buildings.

Here are some of the ways we’ve moved forward in coping with an increasingly turbulent world:

  • Risk assessment: It’s one thing to accumulate massive amounts of data from all over the world; it’s another to make sense of it. But supercomputers using risk-assessment software have become much more sophisticated in recognizing travel and language patterns and in analyzing links between people, places and events. That becomes the basis of risk profiles and watchlists used at airports and borders. But the computers can still struggle with interpreting local jargon and metaphors. And, unfortunately, people who aren’t suspicious at all can still turn up on watchlists.
  • Reading faces: Face recognition software is making a leap forward from 2-D to 3-D scanning. For a computer to analyze facial “landmarks” using 2-D software, the person in the photo pretty much had to be looking straight into the camera. But 3D facial recognition software can adapt flat images, using distinctive features—such as curves of the eye socket or the nose–to identify someone. Other recognition methods coming into play are “surface texture analysis,” which uses a “skinprint” of pores, skin texture and scars to identify someone, and identification through the iris of a person’s eye. The latter is now used at only a handful of airports around the world, but will be tested at two yet-unnamed U.S. airports later this year.
  • Body scanning: People worried about the new airport body scanners revealing a little too much of their naked selves will be happy to know that a machine being tested at London’s Heathrow Airport makes you look a lot like Gumby.
  • Speaking the language: There’s long been a language barrier for American troops in Afghanistan, but Lockheed Martin has developed a Dial-a-Translator system called LinGO Link. Soldiers in the field use a customized smart phone to connect, over secure lines, to a bank of translators who can interpret, in real time, what’s being said.
  • Crisis control: One of the more disturbing lessons learned on 9/11 was that first responders had a very hard time communicating with each other. Commanders inside the World Trade Center didn’t have a clear idea of what was happening outside. But now the city has a high-tech Fire Department Operations Center, which will help prevent the situation 10 years ago when too many ambulances were dispatched to the Twin Towers. Now commanders in the operation center can use GPS tracking which displays on maps all of the vehicles dispatched to a disaster scene.
  • Safer skyscrapers: None of us will ever forget watching the Twin Towers collapse into a mountain of debris. The failure occurred partly because the planes severed the buildings’ sprinkler systems, allowing the fires to burn and fatally weaken the structure. Skyscrapers of the future are being designed to ensure that never happens again. Now sprinkler supply lines are being located within an impact-resistant core. Also, new buildings are being constructed with steel floor structures designed to resist collapse. And new skyscrapers are being built with fast “lifeboat” elevators that can rush people from high floors directly to the lobby.
  • Rise of the robots: Little robots called Packbots got their baptism under fire digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center and proved their value for search and rescue missions in unsafe environments. Earlier this year they were used to inspect damage at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Now smaller versions—so small they can fit into a backpack—are in demand in Afghanistan. If a soldier wants to see what’s in a building, he just tosses the robot inside, then controls its movements while watching what its camera sees.  The Defense Department is impressed enough that it’s likely to order as many as 5,000 of the little machines.

Bonus: See a “pocketbot” in action. (Even if the music is way over the top).

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