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IT and Terrorism

September 12, 2001: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.

There has been much debate whether the new millennium began on January 1, 2000 or January 1, 2001. The answer is easy: the new millennium began on September 11, 2001. To understand why, it is important to examine the intersection between information technology and terrorism, and the significance of this intersection for the new century.

At the broadest level, the recent terrorist attack is confirmation of the trend pointed to by Castells (The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture), Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld), Friedman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree), etc. The main dynamic in our society is between global networks of informational capitalism and local identities. And, unfortunately, those "local identities" often get expressed by violent anti-globalization or anti-Western movements. Those of you who haven't read Castells trilogy really should. It's by far the best overview of modern social, political, and economic dynamics. I wrote a brief review of the three volumes a few years ago for Computers & Composition and you can read it on my Website ( One aspect that I didn't focus on in the review is Castell's prescient focus on global terrorism as a major dynamic of our current area.

So ironically, technology plays two roles here. On the one hand, the very nature of the globalized technological society provides a raison d'etre for terrorist groups. They can't stand the political, cultural, social, and economic changes brought about by globalization under the leadership of the US, the "Great Satan." On the other hand, they take advantage of the same new technologies for their own organizing. Cell phones, international satellites, the Internet, video, and other new technologies are critical for the operations of international terrorist groups.

Nowhere is this mix more evident than in Osama Bin Laden's shadowy "Al Qa'ida" (the Base) network. This network grew out of the Afghan anti-Soviet movements that the US shortsightedly supported. It has since become a huge international network of of thousands of fighters, drawing on several other movements in Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere. Bankrolled by Osama Bin Laden's $100 million+ Saudi inheritance, the group organizes a general jihad or holy war against the West, and, in particular, the US. With its main headquarters and training camps in Afghanistan, but with cells existing throughout the Middle East and other parts of the world (including, apparently the US) -- all in communication through a wide range of modern technology -- it represents the most potent terrorist network of the information society.

Technology plays another role in terrorism, providing the means of attack. In this case, the terrorists wielded very low-tech tools, small knives made of razor blades with handles. But, they were able to leverage these to deploy much more advanced technologies in their attack -- large jet airplanes and huge modern steel structures. It proved to be a deadly combination. Can anyone doubt that the direct deployment of more "advanced" technologies in terrorist attacks lies in the future, including portable nuclear explosives or biochemical poisons directed to the air or water supplies? This deadly possibility makes terrorism a major security and social issue of the 21st century.

Fortunately, though far from foolproof, information technology also offers tools for combatting terrorism. Biometric devices that provide individualized recognition of people (through scanning their fingers, hands, eyes, or faces) offer one possible tool. Phil Agre, an astute commentator on the social aspects of information technology, has recently published a piece strongly arguing against the public use of face recognition cameras ( I disagree with Agre on this point, and I look forward to better and broader use of this technology to combat crime and terrorism.

Agre does support narrower uses of biometrics, as indicated in his most recent report, which I include below. (Those of you who want to continue to receive his reports, which include frequent lists of links, can subscribe to his RRE list at I'll continue to draw on his most interesting work and links as one of the sources of Papyrus News.) I do agree with his point in the report below that technology applied indiscriminately, without thoughtful reform of institutions, is ineffective, and I think he makes some thoughtful comments about the design of the airline industry below. Combatting terrorism involves a combination of factors--an increase in public recognition and will, the development of social and technological means to fight terror, and, in the long run, global socio-economic reform that will weaken the social base of terrorist groups.

In summary then, the development of ICT and the network society has created the social, political, and economic context surrounded modern terrorism -- by providing an enemy, by providing a means of transnational hard-to-detect communication, and by providing the means of terror attacks. IT may also provide some tools to combat terrorism, but the most important aspect of society's defense is the recognition of this as a major threat and challenge of the 21st century. The events of September 11, 2001 certainly have provided a rude awakening. I hope this awakening will spur attention and action that will allow much more deadly, high-tech attacks to be prevented in the future.

Mark Warschauer


Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 10:03:43 -0700
From: Phil Agre <>
To: "Red Rock Eater News Service" <>
Subject: [RRE]attack
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I've enclosed some more URL's related to the attacks on the east coast.

Although I want the attackers caught as much as anyone, I'm concerned by some of the language I'm hearing, including some nearly fascist rhetoric about America being "soft". I was happy to hear George Bush emphasize that civil liberties will be protected. If you understand the attack as an assault on freedom, then it hardly makes sense to diminish freedom as a result.

We do need to improve security, but we should not understand the need for heightened security in a broad, vague way as a cultural imperative. We do not need a police state, and we should not militarize our society. Rather, we should view security as a design problem. We have an opening now, a brief window when the airlines cannot undermine improved security in their own commercial interests. Maybe we can also force Microsoft to design its products in a secure way, rather than exposing us to the severe information security problems we've seen in the last few months with its fundamentally shoddy architectures. We should take advantage of this opening to redesign our aircraft, buildings, software, and institutions in a rational way. Consider some examples:

* Look at the doors between aircraft cabins and the cockpit. Anyone could knock down those doors. Of course, just fixing the doors isn't enough, but it's an example of the concrete design problems that we can address. We have a chance to completely rethink the interior spaces of aircraft, which could benefit dramatically from the attention of an industrial design firm.

* We also have a chance to implement long-delayed proposals for things like fuel tank safety. How well do we understand the entire life cycle of jet fuel, surely one of the most dangerous substances in existence?

* Next-generation digital aircraft electronics should be rethought more deeply for their contributions to security, as well as their security vulnerabilities, before their architecture is set in stone. Right now the controllers on the ground have far too tenuous an idea of where the planes are, especially in emergency conditions. It's absurd that an attacker can simply turn the tracking devices off.

* Many airports predate modern security procedures, with the result that the security arrangements are crammed into spaces where they don't belong. The physical design of the conveyor belts on the luggage scanners is terrible, and the signs are useless. And have you actually looked at the video display from the X-ray unit? The whole system can be redesigned to be more meaningful, more reliable, and less frustrating -- another job for real industrial designers.

* How did the incentives get set up to pay the airport security people minimum wage? Who's allowing the airlines to use security procedures to play out their conflicting agendas about baggage size? The institution of airport security needs to be redesigned. One approach would be to federalize it; those who don't like to federalize things are invited to come up with designs of their own.

* Another area that needs to be redesigned is the identification system for airport, airline, security, and law enforcement personnel in airports. As it is, anyone can wave any badge-like object at anyone else and go wherever they want. Identification systems that would be unacceptably invasive for the general public are reasonable for employees in security-sensitive environments. Identification systems in general are a slow-motion catastrophe, and simplistic proposals like a national ID are a poor substitute for fine-grained attention to the details of how identities get administered in practice. Identification also has an information-design angle that is usually neglected, given the small, cryptic, hard-to-read markings on most identity documents.

In short, we need an analytical approach and a design approach. Vague abstractions are counterproductive. It is useless to ask "how much of our civil liberties do we need to give up?" or "is our intelligence capacity too constrained?" or "we need more security, but how much is enough?". We should look at problems concretely, in specifics. Seeming tensions between privacy and technology routinely disappear once problems are considered concretely and in detail. So the question is not "can biometrics solve the problem?", since biometrics, as such, in general, can't solve anything. It is entirely conceivable that specific biometric technologies can play a specific role in a systemic redesign of the security systems at airports and elsewhere, including online. Indiscriminate use of biometrics to identify everyone and everything is useless, and it's also dangerous if it's simply pasted on top of dysfunctional institutions, or if it substitutes for concrete, analytical thinking.

Wall Street Journal coverage (appears to be available without a subscription)

Yahoo links to news stories etc

eyewitness accounts

online mechanisms for donating to the Red Cross

legal coverage

mailing list to connect people who can volunteer or provide resources

aircraft flight tracks

front pages of 50 newspapers' coverage of the attack

Current Awareness via Streaming Audio/Video

Speech/Transcripts/Statements from US and Foreign Leaders

Anonymous Remailer Operators Start to Take Remailers Offline

Middle East Newswire

Two Planes Hit Twin Towers at Exactly the Worst Spot

Security Experts Knew a Major Attack Was Possible

Insurance Cost for Terrorist Attack to Near $1 Billion

Reports: Boston Investigators Find Evidence in Attacks

civil engineering aspects of the building collapse

online discussion site for pilots

Rescuers Struggle at Pentagon

Why the Killers Threaten World Prosperity

In Shock, Teachers Downplay Tragedy

EBay Cancels Auctions of Attack-Related Items (some idiots were actually gathering rubble in order to sell it on eBay)


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Last updated: September 16, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0