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By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

How Osama bin Laden Changed Technology in Government

May 27, 2011 By

Osama bin Laden - click to see moreOsama Bin Laden’s death is a welcome event for most people, especially in the United States. Yet his life profoundly changed the direction of information technology as it is used in City, County, State and the Federal government. Indeed, my own life is vastly different than it would have been if the World Trade Center towers had not been destroyed on September 11, 2001.

The most visible effect for most Americans, of course, is our two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even there, the effect is distant from the majority of us: relatively few families have friends or relatives who serve in the military. (A notable exception – reservists and the National Guard – I have a friend in the Seattle Parks Department who has been activated three times, once each for Afghanistan, Iraq and Djibouti,and now has been notified of an upcoming fourth deployment).

Full Body ScannerOf course anyone using airports notices the “new” fedgov bureaucracy, the Transportation Security Administration and its wide variety of high and low technologies from “spread ‘em” millimeter wave body scanners to “feel ‘em up” intrusive body pat-downs.

But Bin Laden’s war on the United States changed much more in the way we live and govern our cities and counties and states.

After September 11th, the threat of terrorist attacks took a prominent place alongside earthquakes and hurricanes as a potential disaster. Now we worry about “dirty” bombs, and nuclear weapons smuggled in aboard ships and bio-attacks (remember the anthrax delivered to Congress?).Coast Guard and a Ferry In Seattle, we’ve done vulnerability analyses on likely targets such as the Space Needle, Microsoft headquarters, Boeing plants and Washington State ferries. Indeed, you can often see Coast Guard fast attack craft zooming alongside ferries. And traffic barriers and bollards protect buildings which may be targets.

Most visibly from a technology point of view, interoperable communications for first respondershas taken center stage. In the World Trade Center attacks, New York City police officers in the buildings received the radioed notice to evacuate, but firefighters – operating on different radio channels – did not, and many of them died as a result. Many meetings have been held and much legislation proposed, but as of this writing – almost ten years later – we have few concrete improvements in interoperability. Notably, the Obama Administration has proposed a $12 billion grant program, financed by the sale of spectrum, to build a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network. http://www.cioupdate.com/news/article.php/3922331/Obama-Looks-to-Drive-RD-Wireless-Broadband.htm Whether Congress has the ability stop its internal bickering and actually enact legislation for this program is an open question. Nevertheless some cities and states, such as Charlotte, Harris County (Houston), Mississippi and the Los Angeles and San Francisco regions, are boldly building the first of these new, vital, networks.

Other changes include a new Fedgov Department, Homeland Security, to improve our readiness to combat terrorist threats. It’s initial steps to help us prepare for terrorist attacks include not only the TSA, but also the ill-conceived color-coded terrorism threat level (i.e. nuclear urine yellow) system. Recently, TSA and air marshal programs, fast FEMA responses, and Coast Guard interdiction of threats have allowed DHS to come into its own.

Whole grant funding programs have sprung into being as well, for example the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI). UASI is funding thousands of programs to help harden vulnerable targets, equip first responders with personal protective equipment, and conduct exercises and training to improve our ability to withstand both terrorist events and disasters.

In the Seattle area, we’ve built a secure fiber network to interlink the seats of Government and Emergency operations Centers in central Puget Sound. Seattle – and many other cities and counties – have invested local funds to construct new, state-of-the-art 911 centers and emergency operations centers. Concerned about cybersecurity threats, we’ve hardened our control networks which manage the electricity and water grids. Indeed, the whole field of cybersecurity and information technology security now has new life confronting not just terrorist threats, but the very real problems created by hackers, phishers and identity thieves. With the help of homeland security dollars, we here in Seattle are building a cyber event logging system which will help correlate cyber security events across the Puget Sound Region.

Is America safer now than in 2011, especially given Bin Laden’s death? I don’t know. But I do know we are somewhat better prepared to meet disaster and terrorist acts. We have disaster preparedness plans and we exercise them. We are a more connected society with wired and wireless networks, and we are keenly aware of potential cyber security threats. We are more vigilant.

But we have a lot – a LOT – more to do. President Obama, Vice-President Biden and their Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra have shown great leadership in boldly proposing to fund a new public safety broadband wireless network. The FCC has granted waivers to 20 cities, regions and states to build these networks. Courageous leaders in Congress such as Senators Rockefeller, Hutchison, McCain and Lieberman, and Representatives Peter King and Benny Thompson, are proposing legislation to finally build the nationwide networks first responders need to meet the challenge not just of terrorist events but also the daily incidents and disasters. Even the New York Timeshas endorsed these efforts.

Will their leadership overcome the naysayers in Congress and elsewhere?

For the sake of the nation, for the health and safety of every one of our citizens, I hope it does.


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