As I write this column, it is just over two weeks since four planes were hijacked and used as flying bombs in an attempt to destroy key symbols of America's economy, government and freedom. At the time of the attacks, I was just getting out of bed in a hotel near the Los Angeles airport in California. My first action as always was to switch on the television to CNN's Headline News. The first image I saw was smoke and flames billowing out of one of the towers of the World Trade Center. This was quickly followed by a scream and the announcement that a second plane had hit the other tower. My initial reaction was that I had tuned to the wrong station and was watching a movie. However, reality began to set in as my cell phone rang and my wife confirmed that this was real. She followed up by telling me, in no uncertain terms, to get away from the airport in case it too was attacked.
A seemingly normal Tuesday morning was forever changed and the date of September 11, 2001, joined those of December 7, 1941, June 6, 1944, and November 22, 1963, as dates that require no elaboration. As events unfolded over the next few days and the death toll rose to more than 6,000, amazing tales of personal sacrifice and compassion emerged. Secondarily, a relatively new dimension to the story and the subsequent events rose to prominence. Almost every aspect of the events surrounding September 11 demonstrated, in both a positive and negative manner, the degree to which technology impacts our lives.
On the negative side, the failures in airport security and intelligence gathering prior to the attacks raise significant questions about the ability to fully leverage technology. It is interesting to note that after the attacks, information was rapidly pieced together to start explaining events. More striking was that the data was largely available prior to the attack but was not interpreted in the appropriate context. As is often the case, the data was not lacking, the insight was.
Perhaps the most startling aspect was the use of a fuel- laden commercial aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction. One of the many talking heads to appear on television following the attacks went so far as to suggest that the technology for pilot-less planes which has been around for many years may have prevented the hijackers from gaining control of the aircraft. A provocative data point in the ongoing man versus machine debate.
It is also clear that the terrorists used the Internet as means of communication. The ability to plan the attacks undetected over what appears to be many years and thousands of miles illustrates the power of the accelerating convergence between computer and communications technologies. Combined with dramatic decreases in cost and the relative ease of access to the core tools, the potential of any individual to harness computing power for good or evil has and likely will continue to grow exponentially. After all, how much effort does it take to set up an e-mail account from your local public library? This realization is likely to trigger the development of even more new technologies to ensure safety and privacy which, in turn, will further charge discussions regarding freedom and civil liberties.
On the positive side, although perhaps one of the most chilling stories to emerge from the horror, were the numerous accounts of people using their mobile phones to communicate with their loved ones or to try to alert the authorities in the certain knowledge that they were about to die. Technology revealed the courage and compassion of many from the brave passengers who confronted the terrorists aboard United Airlines flight 93 to the man who, moments before the collapse, told his family that he could not leave his quadriplegic friend alone in one of the World Trade Center towers.
The world of commerce was rocked by the attacks and an already jittery economy hastened its dive into recession. However, much like Y2K, the tangible impact of the attack on commercial computing was relatively minor. Millions of dollars worth of equipment was destroyed; however, the value of years of contingency planning paid dividends as almost all organizations affected by the tragedy were able to restore computer and communications services in short order. The New York Stock Exchange reopened six days after the attack and would not have been prevented from opening earlier by its technology. Communications networks were sorely tested; and while outages and capacity shortages did occur, there does not appear to be any permanent damage. Companies formerly housed in the World Trade Center were soon open again for business, and the loss of data appears to have been minimal as well-rehearsed backup and recovery procedures kicked into gear.
While intelligence-gathering systems may not have detected the attack before it happened, the efforts to understand how it happened and bring the perpetrators to justice will be greatly enhanced through the use of the latest tools. Early efforts yielded airline passenger manifests, e-mail and Internet usage records of the hijackers in Florida and links to flying schools, trucking companies and financial institutions amongst many other pieces of information. There is little doubt that the technology deployed to prevent terrorism and protect people while travelling will be dramatically enhanced in the months and years to come. As with many lessons learned in the past, it has taken a tragedy to trigger action to address known weaknesses. Technology executives are already reevaluating many aspects of their operations including employee screening processes, physical and logical access controls, backup procedures, contingency plans, data privacy, encryption and network security.
If there is one lesson we can apply from this terrible tragedy to our future use of technology, it is that for every potential benefit a new technology yields there is a potential negative return as well. Effective planning and management often requires we spend more time on the negatives than the positives. It is a salutary lesson, when despite the billions of dollars invested in all the technologies discussed in this column, none were able to prevent nineteen determined men from wreaking havoc one sunny Tuesday morning in September.
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