If you were able to get through to yesterday’s column between server crashes perhaps you noticed the very first reader comment, which wasn’t about mobile phones or marathons at all, but about my promise to in this column discuss new anti-terrorism technology. Here, if you missed it, is his comment:
“Is yesterday going to be an excuse to ban pressure cookers? I’m fed up with the government. Money has been shoveled by the barge load onto the ‘security issue’ and we have nothing to show for it except the union thug goons that feel us up at the airport and a severe loss of personal and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. I suggest we disband these futile efforts and accept the fact that life has risk associated with it.”
Implicit in this comment, at least the way I read it, is some expectation that what I’ll propose in this column is something like the banning of pressure cookers. Readers who don’t know my work might expect that, but those who do know my work (and there’s a lot of it out there to be examined over the 25 years I’ve had this particular gig) probably believe otherwise. Remember my first column after 9/11 was about the abuse of power in the name of national security — that at a time when almost nobody was expressing such ideas.
You see I agree with much, though not all, of what the reader suggests.
If I had the power to just order things to be the way I think they should be I’d require some logical security responses like the armoring of cockpit doors that practically eliminated airliner hijacking as a threat then beyond that do little or nothing. A huge nation can absorb a blow or two and once it’s seen there’s no real impact on our culture the terrorists will go on to other, more compliant, targets.
But that’s not the way we seem to do things around here. Instead we throw trillions into byzantine security programs and overseas adventuring, most of it useless, then we try to blame others for the resultant debt. So any further suggestions I have for improving the peace must be mapped against that broader scene of government greed and stupidity.
What we celebrate in this column has always been the empowerment through technology of ordinary people. The personal computer changed our culture, pushing technology to the edges of society, changing forever the balance of power.
This can be seen in the decline of milspec. Remember that term? It referred to electronic components made to military specifications which were better than anything you or I could buy or could even afford to buy. The military got the good stuff and through industry being forced to build that good stuff the rest of us over time began to get better components and products, too. Milspec today is for most purposes gone, killed by an acceleration of technical progress that improved the quality of components faster than the military could revise its specifications. That and military applications ceased to be volume leaders for electronic components so the tail (the PC) eventually came to wag that semiconductor dog.
Intel today makes better parts for gaming computers than it does typically for the military.
Personal computing began in homes then migrated to business but technical leadership has for the most part remained in the home market. It’s in our homes where we typically have faster computers, more processing power, and greater bandwidth than most of us have at work. This is a trend that has continued with the Internet and now mobile where Bring Your Own Device is as much an announcement of the weakness of corporate IT as it is the strength of individual technology.
I expect this trend of personalization to continue and even to accelerate.
So let’s apply it to national security by applying it first to local security.
We are a nation of tinkerers and gadget enthusiasts. We adopt technical trends sometimes for almost no reason at all. Remember CB radio? In many ways the rise of CB radio made possible personal computing and the later demise of CB radios made personal computing commercially essential to keep many technology companies from going out of business.
Now here’s a radical idea: what if we took anti-terrorism technologies, miniaturized them, drove the cost out, then gave them not to the government but to everyone?
What I’m specifically thinking of here are scanning technologies based on non-ionizing terahertz electromagnetic waves, the very kind of waves that today look through your underwear at many airports. That same technology can be used for detection as easily as for imaging. Materials have submillimeter signatures that can be detected in very small amounts from distances up to 10 meters.
Think back to videos of the recent events in Boston. One of those bombs exploded directly in front of a Lenscrafters optical store. Why couldn’t that store aim out its front window one or more terahertz detectors tuned to read a broad list of submillimeter substance signatures including most common explosives?
Don’t carry a bomb on front of my store.
This isn’t some government program we’re talking about, it’s Lenscrafters or Starbucks. Insurance companies could come to require it, creating a veritable obstacle course down Main Street for terrorists and wackos.
It wouldn’t end terrorism but it would make terrorism more difficult. And since terrorism is typically a crime of opportunity, those who embraced such solutions could strongly encourage the bad guys to go elsewhere.
But what about constitutionality? What about cost?
I see these as passive systems that might be legal or might be able to be made legal through legislation, but that’s not my area of expertise so legal tests will have to be done.
As for cost, we’re right at the threshold of a renaissance in terahertz science. Yes, those peek-through-your undies machines at the airport cost up to $1 million, but it is important to realize they represent older science and were built for the Homeland Security pork trough: they are vastly more expensive than they need to be.
Your tax dollars at work.
Now here’s a fact that may startle you. A terahertz emitter can also be used as a detector and it is right now possible to build perfectly practical terahertz emitters as I’ve described for less than a dollar. These are devices that could be powered in every sense (both in terms of electricity and computation) by something along the lines of an iPod Touch. It’s a dongle and an app, both potentially available in volume for under $10.
What business owner wouldn’t invest in something like that, especially if it was required by the insurance company? Hell, it’s cheap enough to be provided by the insurance company.
Not in front of my store you don’t!
I, Cringely - Cringely on technology