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SAFE: Science and Technology in the Age of Ter

SAFE: Science and Technology in the Age of Ter

by Martha Baer

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If our society is the most technologically sophisticated on Earth, then why can't we protect ourselves from terrorists and other threats to our safety and security?

This is the question that frustrates—and scares—all of us today, and the answers have proved maddeningly elusive. Until now. Through dramatic, enlightening, and often entertaining


If our society is the most technologically sophisticated on Earth, then why can't we protect ourselves from terrorists and other threats to our safety and security?

This is the question that frustrates—and scares—all of us today, and the answers have proved maddeningly elusive. Until now. Through dramatic, enlightening, and often entertaining narratives, SAFE makes visible—and understandable—the high-stakes work being done by some of the most ingenious problem-solvers across the country and around the world, people committed to creating real and dependable security in the twenty-first century.

The characters in these pages, from scientists and engineers to academics, entrepreneurs, and emergency workers, take us into a fascinating world of inquiry and discovery. Their stories reveal where our greatest vulnerabilities lie and where our best hope deservedly shines through. They show why the systems we rely on to protect ourselves can also be exploited by others to create catastrophe—and what we can do to outsmart the terrorists. We have ample proof that terrorists will go to great lengths to understand how our technologies can be put to destructive use. Now it's time to ask ourselves a question: Are we willing to let them keep beating us at our own game? For the brilliant and colorful innovators in these pages, the answer is no.

Among them are Eric Thompson, an expert digital code breaker instrumental in deciphering hidden Al Qaeda messages; Mike Stein, a New York City firefighter turned technologist who is working to overcome the numerous communications failures of 9/11; Eve Hinman, who conducts structural autopsies at the scene of explosions, including the Oklahoma City bombing, in order to develop more blast-resistant designs; Ken Alibek, the infamous architect of the former Soviet bioweapons program and now an American entrepreneur working in the business of defending his adopted country from bioterrorism; Kris Pister and Michael Sailor, university researchers developing sensors no larger than a speck of dust; Rafi Ron, former head of security for Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and now a leading strategist on U.S. airport security; Tara O'Toole, who stages doomsday bioterror scenarios in order to craft better biodefense systems; and Jeff Jonas, a high-rolling Las Vegas software entrepreneur whose methods for spotting casino cheats might just have uncovered the 9/11 plot.

Readers of SAFE will come away understanding the unique challenges posed by technological progress in a networked, and newly dangerous, world. Witnessing the work of this gathering force of innovators up close, they'll be inspired by the power of the human intellect and spirit—and realize how important the contributions of individual citizens and communities can be.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
We rely on an incredible number of systems in our daily lives: transportation, sanitation, food, electricity, communications, and so on. The possibility of a terrorist event disrupting this delicate balance is something that many Americans worry about every day. Baer, a former producer for Wired Digital, is joined by fellow journalists Katrina Heron, Oliver Morton, and Evan Ratliff in crafting a riveting account of the wide range of counterterrorist work that is going on every day in this country. From engineers considering the effects of bomb blasts on the integrity of buildings, to scientists studying the quiet yet horrible impact of germ warfare, to computer wizards struggling to crack sophisticated computer codes that hide the communications efforts of such nefarious groups as the hijackers who destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11, this powerful story should be required reading for anyone who wonders how the war on terror is really being handled. Recommended for all collections.-Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Four Wired magazine writers and editors offer a geek's-eye view of homeland security. The 9/11 hijackers weren't necessarily smarter than those whose putative charge it was to keep them from their mischief, the authors assert. But they had this advantage: They had closely studied a complex system-namely, airport security-just as a gambling cheat would study a casino, and they had figured out ways to thwart it. The terrorist event to worry about, the authors suggest, is not necessarily the lone suicide bomber on the bus, but the concerted attack on some other complex system; remarks one source, a Department of Energy engineer, "Give me the nineteen 9/11 terrorists and put them all to work on the power grid, and they could bring down the whole country for months." No small worry that, for there are 10,400 power-generating stations in the US, and 250,000 manholes and service boxes in the Con Edison portion of the grid alone-plenty of weak links, in other words, in a weak chain. Working against such odds stand a motley assemblage of scientists, engineers, and even hobbyists who are doing such things as developing foolproof ways to monitor cargo containers (which, some security experts believe, will one day deliver a nuclear explosion to some unfortunate American port) and social-network models that can help forecast terrorist events; as the authors point out, using airline data alone, authorities might have been able to identify 13 of the 19 hijackers before they boarded their planes, if only they had known how to read the data. Putting those innovators' projects to work will require cultural change within police and intelligence agencies, but, the authors conclude, hopeful signs abound. Anexcellent summary of the state of the art, though some of the material is better covered elsewhere; Jeanne Guillemin's Biological Weapons (2004), for instance, trumps the long section on biowarfare. Even so, of much interest to techno-cognoscenti types-as well as advocates of security reform.

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Read an Excerpt


The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World
By Heron, Katrina

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 0060577150

Chapter One


"How would you take out the Holland Tunnel?" asks Tom O'Rourke. This courteous 54-year-old engineer stopped updating his look somewhere around 1980 -- outsized square wire-rims, turtlenecks, a herringbone sports jacket that's more architectural than sartorial at the shoulders. His gray-white hair is parted at the distant left. In a crowded San Francisco restaurant, he looks across the table at three companions, attendees at a lecture he gave several hours ago, who have tagged along to dinner. But they're too shy to venture responses to his question. Visions of giant U-Hauls parked mid-tube and filled with explosives take shape in their minds and hang there. O'Rourke answers the question himself. "Disable the ventilation," he says. "No human being could get from one end of the tunnel to the other without asphyxiating. The energy of an explosion wouldn't blow out the walls of a tunnel," he adds. "It would be funneled out the ends." This would be deadly in the moment, but not structurally harmful. "Destroying the ventilation towers," he explains, "would make the tunnel unusable for months."

Despite its dark import, O'Rourke finds a certain satisfaction in this little quiz. It embodies a truth he cares about passionately: that countless ordinary, invisible, disregarded systemsare what make modern life possible. Disrupt them and a routine day can come to a stop, workers flooding suddenly out of offices into the streets, television news anchors interrupting regular programming, neighbors gathering and speculating.

The capabilities of these systems are both marvelous and daunting. From the geometry of columns that make buildings stand up to the elimination of bacteria in food-processing plants, from 9-1-1 dispatches to ventilation ducts -- it's impossible to fully comprehend all the mechanisms and processes we rely on every day. Yet all these systems are vulnerable -- to accidents, to internal failures, and to the relentless specialization that a technologically advanced society demands. And they are vulnerable to terrorism, both directly through targeted sabotage and indirectly as the result of attacks aimed nearby.

O'Rourke is a master of this invisible realm. He has spent his life in places most people don't think about, much less visit: excavation pits that prefigure buildings, cisterns that hold cities' rainwater, dirt passageways soon to become public transit lines, pipe networks that deliver natural gas. He lives, in a sense, in the land of omission, where buried conduits make the news only rarely and only if they fail, and he has spent his career making sure they don't. You might say he's like those systems themselves: hard at work accomplishing specific tasks, influential across distances, ingenious, unglamorous, connected.

In fact, O'Rourke is one member of a sprawling network, made up of thousands of engineers much like him, who spend their lives protecting the hidden machinery of daily life. They oversee those elements that the rest of us have mythologized and forgotten: air, water, earth, fire. They build roads and design ports, track diseases and program computers, fix aqueducts, monitor farms, and anticipate disasters. And they tend to see the world in terms of its systems: collections of elements that comprise a functioning whole, which can be assembled, dismantled, reconfigured, and improved. Engineers think this way about all sorts of phenomena, from tiny biological systems to hulking, man-made transportation systems. They see systems inside what might look to others like single, fixed entities -- buildings, for example, or genomes -- and they imagine ways to isolate, alter, or exploit individual components.

Long before terrorism made it to the top of the national agenda, this network of experts, so vast that many members don't know of many others' existence, was pondering the weaknesses and strengths of the systems that support us. Their careers have evolved and their ideas have flourished in tune with the nation's worries and hopes -- and science funding. Many worked on nuclear weapons and defense during the cold war (O'Rourke himself "took a pass" on an opportunity to work on missile launching pads tunneled so deep in the ground that they could withstand attack, their weapons used to retaliate); they moved on to various interests such as natural hazards or environmental ills. And today, as the United States turns its attention away from past fears, pledging to heighten its defenses against terrorism, this community of specialists is already on the job. You just have to know where to look for them.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tom O'Rourke played sports, and read Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper, while his father worked as a salesman for a chemical company. It wasn't until attending Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, that he discovered civil engineering. Since then he has cleaved loyally to upstate New York, returning from earning a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, to Cornell. Today, after 20-odd years, he continues to teach in Cornell's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (recent courses include "Retaining Structures and Slopes" and "Rock Engineering") while logging at least 100,000 miles of travel every year. A lean, 6- foot, 4-inch figure whose permanent slouch is a gesture of inclusion to anyone looking at him from below, O'Rourke will show up at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., or the offices of the multinational construction company Bechtel in San Francisco, or at the site of the Big Dig -- a massive urban reconstruction project -- in Boston, or at the scene of an earthquake in Turkey. And these days, he's making a concerted effort on behalf of dozens of engineers like him to get the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, where he's certain his expertise is relevant. O'Rourke's peripatetic life, however, is a function not just of his energetic disposition (his voice-mail greeting encourages callers to "have a productive day") but also of the complexity and scope of his field.

In 1998, the Clinton administration issued a manifesto of sorts, calling on business and government to take heed of the systems that sustain them ... Continues...

Excerpted from Safe by Heron, Katrina Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Martha Baer is a former senior producer at Wired Digital and the author of As Francesca, a novel about online anonymity and intrigue.

Katrina Heron is the former editor-in-chief of Wired and a contributing editor at GQ.

Award-winning science journalist Oliver Morton is the author of Mapping Mars, a contributing editor at Wired, and a contributor for The New Yorker, Science, and The American Scholar. He lives with his wife in Greenwich, England.

Evan Ratliff is a regular contributor to Wired and Ready Made magazines whose work has also appeared in Outside, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.

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