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photo by Viktor Nagornyy from Flickr

How 9/11 Has Driven Technology Advancements

Before 9/11, there was no comprehensive terrorism database. There was no comprehensive data on terrorist organizations and very little systematic data on what the government was doing to fight terrorism. After 9/11, advances in social science took a leading role in developing ways to react, and in many cases prevent, another terrorist attack in the United States. These were among the thoughts shared by panelists examining the unprecedented challenges that came after 9/11. They spoke at day two of the National Institute of Justice 2011 Conference.

“Imagine trying to fight cancer without knowing how much cancer there is,” Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, said.

Global Terrorism Database Developed

After the attacks LaFree helped research and design a database of all terrorist events from 1970 to 2010. The Global Terrorism Database tracks rates and patterns of attacks over time and the impacts of terrorist countermeasures. “We are in much better standing from ten years ago when it comes to social and behavioral understanding of terrorism,” LaFree said.

One overall trend shown by the data is that attacks have become more deadly over time. “Terrorists want more people watching and more people dead,” LaFree said.

Not surprisingly, the data also show that organizations with democratic ideologies are less likely to engage in terrorism. Separatist groups, groups with violent rhetoric, groups with foreign support, and groups with state repression were all more likely to engage in terrorist activities. Groups with all of these factors present had an 89 percent chance of turning to terrorism, LaFree said.

He also notes that urban populations have become a prime target for terrorists over time. Attacks in New York make up 20 percent of attacks in the database. And in wartorn Iraq, 2,000 attacks happened in Baghdad.

Field Testing New Technology  

After 9/11, security research took on more urgency and importance, Jay Nunamaker, principal investigator and director of the Center for Management of Information at the National Center for Border Security and Immigration, said. More and more researchers began publishing information on terrorism, but Nunamaker says that they were forgetting an important step--the importance of testing new technologies and programs in the field, not just writing about them. “It’s not coming up with the idea, but what you do with it that makes it worthwhile. You’re not going to get answers if you guess from your office chair,” he said.

One new technology that he’s worked on for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is a kiosk that would work like an advanced polygraph for people coming through U.S. Customs. The machine would show people passing through customs a series of photos while measuring their blood pressure via the carotid artery using a laser, a thermal camera to measure body temperature, and an eye tracker that measures eye movement and pupil dilation. Initial tests impressed researches, but subsequent field tests revealed flaws.

If a person was wearing a turtleneck or their neck was covered, the machine couldn’t read their blood pressure. The machine was developed for use in the southwest but couldn’t handle dusty conditions. And something as subtle as a beard was enough to throw off the system that measured facial movements.

The kiosk is an example of technology that may not have been a priority before 9/11 but that now generates interest.

Nunamaker and his team are currently working on improving the technology based on those field tests and the latest tests were able to pick up deceit in 93 percent of subjects.

New DNA Technology a Result of 9/11

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had a significant effect on forensics, one panelist said. It pushed forensics technology decades forward in a matter of years.

One of the main hurdles when identifying victims from the World Trade Center attack was the degradation of DNA from high temperatures and burning chemicals. Prior to the attacks, there was no established plan for identification of thousands of victims under such extremes. Researchers knew they could extract DNA from bodies, but in many cases, they were left with just bone fragments.

“The process had never been done before,” said Robert Shaler, professor at biochemistry and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State who worked with the New York medical examiner’s office after the attacks. “We were learning this as we went along.”

Shaler said the Kinship and Data Analysis Panel was created with funding from the NIJ. After the attacks,M-FISys[2], an extensive database that helps families identify remains, was created. Researcher Charles Brenner developed a module for paternity-type tests to aid in identification andOSIRIS[3], a free program helps managing and analysis of samples. 

Researchers have also developed ways to extract more data from smaller sample sizes.