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Technology might keep us safe - at what price?

Technology might keep us safe - at what price?

It seems strange writing a column about how 9/11 changed US attitudes toward technology. The events of that day obviously affected our views on a lot of important things: war, death, the US's role in world politics. Technology hardly seems to deserve a mention among such solemn company.

It seems strange writing a column about how 9/11 changed America's attitude toward technology. The events of that day obviously affected our views on a lot of important things: war, death, the US's role in world politics. Technology hardly seems to deserve a mention among such solemn company. But prior to 9/11, would any well-known corporate leader -- even the notably vocal Oracle chairman and CEO Larry Ellison -- have come out for a national ID system? Would Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of the country's largest city do the same? And if they had, would their comments have been met with such muted criticism? The events of 9/11 made us receptive to incursions into our private lives that we wouldn't have accepted previously. And that fact is going to raise some dilemmas for CIOs going forward.

Today, corporations can own the tools to positively identify every employee by fingerprint or retinal scan. Companies can monitor and control every phone call made, every website visited, every email sent or received. They can enforce what software gets installed on corporate systems and what hours those systems can be used. In the near future, thanks to cellphones with embedded global positioning systems, companies will even be able to track an employee's every move. Such Big Brotherism is currently exorbitantly expensive to buy and maintain, but prices will drop and management will become easier. And then, in the interests of corporate self-protection, disaster recovery and -- potentially -- national defense, it's reasonable to think that we will be tempted to take full advantage of these tools.

Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at our relative indifference to such potential intrusions. Technology has long been a hedge against the unknown, whether it was a trench filled with water surrounding a castle or a string of satellites ready to destroy oncoming nuclear missiles.

Now we face different foes, and we're looking for a different kind of technological armor. Face recognition software that can pluck terrorists from a crowd. Foolproof identification systems. National security databases that keep known terrorists from acquiring the tools of their horrible trade.

And the vendors are more than happy to indulge our fear-driven desires. Within days -- even hours -- of when those first terrifying images appeared on our TV screens, the press releases started to appear. Morbidly, they touted the benefits of their companies' products and tried to persuade us that the recent events had only increased the need for those products. From backup software to firewalls to fingerprint scanners, nearly everyone got in on the act. And I don't see anything to indicate that the pressure will let up anytime soon.

The question for CIOs will be, Where do you draw the line? Will you promote the use of such tools? Agree to implement them without argument when they are requested? Raise objections to their use in the interest of employee privacy? It might be best to have your positions worked out now, because these scenarios are likely headed your way -- if they haven't landed on your desk already.

Happily, not all the post-9/11 news is about building electronic walls. A study by the UCLA Internet Project (www.ccp.ucla.edu) found that the tragic events inspired an unprecedented change in how technology helps people communicate. According to the report, more than half of all email users sent or received messages offering emotional support or asking questions about the attack. Not all the messages were directly related to the events in New York City, either; many people used the emails to repair damaged relationships -- repairs that the senders said they never would have attempted with a telephone call.

But such positives are rarely mentioned. It's far easier to focus on the fear.

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