Home Articles The business of ‘Keeping Us Safe’

    The business of ‘Keeping Us Safe’


    For technology entrepreneurs, the war on terror has become the next Y2k. Governments are pumping dollars into defence and security with a level of determination not seen since the Cold War. Private companies are also dedicating escalating attention, and equally escalating funds, to the surveillance and protection of ‘their’ people and ‘their’ corporate assets. Across the globe, the business of ‘Keeping Us Safe’ is booming. But according to some civil libertarians, the technology being used to protect us could also be compromising our personal freedoms. Liz Heynes reports.

    If you’ve taken a domestic flight recently, you may have noticed a new scanning process that takes place after your hand luggage is x-rayed at some airports. A swab is taken from the handle of your bag or your palm and passed through a spectrometer, which gathers a raft of personal information in seconds.

    The scan technology was developed to show whether a passenger has been in contact with explosives or chemical warfare agents.

    But, if calibrated for the purpose, the same technology can also be used to identify what drugs, legal and otherwise, the passenger has recently consumed, what unusual foods are in their diet. And, if the passenger is a woman, it can even tell whether she is ovulating, menopausal or pregnant.

    With terrorism a global preoccupation, defence has become a key political issue, while new and improved security measures are receiving broader public tolerance, allowing companies and public utilities to enforce tighter security measures, such as the increased airport securities we have come to expect.

    Enterprising technology companies have been quick to embrace this climate. And the broader community is already looking forward to a new generation of war-fuelled techno-tools and scientific spin-offs to make our homes and offices more satisfying places to work and rest.

    This security focussed defence-tech renaissance has the potential to vastly improve our everyday lives, but with our civil liberties at risk, are we prepared for the personal cost?


    Security technology is big business. Companies in the sector are growing fast, with the assistance of funding from governments and private enterprise, anxious to protect their people and assets.

    In the US, the fight against al Qaida has consumed more than US$135 billion since 9/11. Some of this funding has found its way to start-ups, using technology to build signal interception devices, biohazard protections and – incredibly – ray guns, seemingly stripped from the script of a Star Trek episode.

    Security companies in the UK are receiving more financial attention than ever before. Government funding announced in late February 2004 will see Security Service numbers jump by 50 per cent, and a further �3 million has been set aside to create a regional network of Special Branch intelligence cells.

    This trend extends to Australia. It seems that a day doesn’t go by without the Federal Government announcing a new program to protect our ports, secure our skies, enhance our armed forces. The 2002-03 budget allocated a whopping $199.6 million to defence over four years, “to ensure greater border surveillance and an increased ability to control the illegal movement of people and goods.”

    And the best thing about it, for technology companies at least, is the number of technology contracts on the table. As anyone in the security business will tell you, crime does pay.

    Biometrics, the science of identifying a person (based on unique physical characteristics, such as fingerprints or facial characteristics), is a technology known for its enormous commercial potential in the new world climate.

    Waging battle on the stock exchange, biometrics companies from all corners of the globe are seeing their shares skyrocket, with the precision and speed of guided missiles.

    “Biometrics is the new buzz word in security technologies,” says John Bigelow, Editor of Security Oz Magazine. “It has huge potential, in its various incantations – iris, voice, finger, palm recognition.”

    One Australian company primed to make an impression is Sydney-based Bio Recognition Systems (BSR), which has recently launched a high security fingerprint-based access control system, to prevent fraudulent entry to a building, as well as monitor work patterns and staff movement.

    According to Phillip Crispe, Director of Sales and Marketing for BRS, “The product has been endorsed by ASIO, meeting its ‘secure area’ requirements, its most stringent security level. It is also being reviewed by the New South Wales police to keep track of people on bail.”

    “But its most promising commercial applications are in the commercial sector as a human resources management tool, allowing employees to monitor staff, by keeping tabs on their comings and goings.”


    But at the same time as our technology innovators are taking the offensive in the commercial arena, security technology is progressively infiltrating our every day lives to a greater and greater extent, in ways that are not always immediately apparent – even to the average GI Joe.

    When using their palm-scanning technology on passengers, Australian airport authorities say they discard the information recorded and that the technology is calibrated to only look for certain substances.

    According to a spokesperson for Melbourne Airport Security. “The technology was designed to detect whether a passenger has handled explosives or drugs. That’s all it is used for. That’s all our machines can detect.”

    A similar walk through device being developed for US airports uses ion mobility spectrometry to check for similar substances, taking just seven seconds per passenger. However, the manufacturers admit that false positives are a possibility. If you’ve picked up a coin last handled by a drug dealer, you may bring up a positive result.

    Such admissions have translated into live teething problems where similar systems are already in use.

    The failure of Sydney airport’s SmartGate system made headlines early last year when two Japanese visitors, taking part in a demonstration, fooled the technology by swapping passports. The automated photo-matching system falsely identified both men.

    In 2001, Tampa, Florida, became the first US city to install facial-recognition software to search for wanted criminals – but after two years and no arrests, the program was dropped.

    In an incident reported in The Washington Post some months ago, Florida law enforcement officials used Tampa’s biometric scanner to scan faces in the crowd at the 2001 Super Bowl (cheekily dubbed ‘the Snooper Bowl’ by US media), to search for criminals in attendance.

    House Majority Leader Dick Amery, who attended the game, felt that the process was an intrusion on his privacy. “They basically intruded on the right of everyone who went to that game,” Amery commented. “My right to ambulate in a public setting should not be compromised.”

    Amery’s comments reflect a global tide of resentment against such intrusive security technology. In a letter addressed to President Bush, US Congress leaders have again called for answers to how personal information gathered at airports will be subsequently used.

    In Australia, an amendment to the Migration Act in February 2004, introducing definitions of the kinds of biometric data that could be used to identify non-Australian citizens, drew a battle cry from privacy advocates. The amendment was seen as a move to introduce national identity cards.

    Terry O’Gorman, President of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, said in a message to the media, “the post-September 11 environment is being exploited to get in a system of surveillance that’s simply not justified.” His concerns about the use of data collected by security technology were raised again in relation to the mooted introduction of an Australian biometric passport, designed to comply with US policy as a result of the recent Australia-US Free Trade Agreement.

    O’Gorman’s concerns are not isolated. Late last year, the Federal Privacy Commissioner Malcolm Crompton said the indefinite retention of some data “increased the possibility that the information may be used for purposes unrelated to the purpose of collection, perhaps years after that collection.”

    According to Bigelow, the backlash isn’t unusual, and while healthy, can sometimes be unfounded.

    “New technologies, such as biometrics, can be frightening. They are new and different, and it is easy for people to say, ‘If they have my fingerprints on file, what’s to stop someone using my fingerprint for a variety of nefarious reasons?’ What they don’t realise is that these sorts of technologies collect algorithms and measurements that can’t be converted back into the original data,” says Bigelow.


    Security technologies are being employed, and deployed, to keep our country and our families protected from harm. While we don’t want to fear bombs on buses, or anthrax in the mail, the technology that protects us also has the potential to compromise and infringe upon our highly valued civil liberties.

    The debate has been opened, and arguments defending and attacking security technology abound.

    This is a good thing, according to Bigelow. “There is always a price attached to security. We could be the safest country in the world, but are we prepared to arrive at the airport three hours early, undergo cavity searches and fly in the nude? Probably not. The important thing is that a balance is met.”

    In late February 2004, the British Home Office released a discussion paper on reconciling security and personal liberty. The paper will no doubt contribute to Australia opinion and help to decide where to draw the line between protecting an individual and their privacy.

    The upcoming Australian election will also influence policy agenda, with Australia’s involvement in Iraq a leading election issue.

    Whichever way the pendulum swings, the irony is that we must be vigilant. If we keep a close eye on things, hopefully the current global preoccupation with security won’t blow up in our faces.