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Did Technology Fail Us In The Terrorist Attacks?

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Did Technology Fail Us In The Terrorist Attacks?

On a bright, picture perfect late summer morning, I popped the moon roof on my Celica, clicked on the radio and headed out on my 45-minute jaunt to the office in Hoboken, N.J., which sits on the banks of the Hudson River opposite lower Manhattan.

It was one of those days that makes you smile, makes you thinkas a former professor of mine used to saythat “its great to be alive.” None of us had the slightest inkling that day that we would not feel like smiling again for many days to comeor that some of us would never again be able to ruminate on the virtues of being alive.

When I saw the mushroom cloud over the still distant World Trade Center, my first shocked thought was: “Dear God, please dont let this be nuclear.” I thought of my son and others close to me, realizing that if this was a nuclear blast that I, and probably they, were already lost. I kept going.

I soon found another radio station and began to hear reports of what had happened. While I was relieved to learn that we hadnt experienced a nuclear attack, that relief was short lived. Fears began to rise in me as I realized that, despite the cautious remarks of the radio broadcasters, this was no accident.

When I finally reached Hoboken, I could see that the World Trade Center was engulfed in choking black billowing smoke. The huge towers, not yet collapsed, loomed directly ahead of me, just across the river. Radio commentators solemnly talked of desperate people jumping 70 or 80 stories to their deaths. I prayed I wouldnt be able to see that. That prayer, at least, was answered.

As I walked the few blocks to my office, I saw a city in the throes of shock, stunned disbelief, anguish and grief. People wandered in the street, not knowing what to do, where to go or what to say. Some were sobbing openly. Many in this city commute daily to the World Trade Center area and many of those now on Hobokens streets, I knew, had friends and loved ones in those ill-fated buildings.

Life would never be the same.

In the days since that awful attack on our nation, we at National Underwriter have written much about what it would mean for insurers and for this industry. My thoughts, naturally, focused on the role that technology might have played in preventing this and the other assaults that took place that summer day.

How is it, people began asking, that not one, but four airliners could be hijacked simultaneously? How did the hijackers get weapons past the security checkpoints? Why werent they detected and caught by airport security technology?

The answers to these questions are still being sought, but some things we do know. A number of the airport security experts who were interviewed after the attacks said it would have been fairly easy to slip weaponsparticularly the knives and box cutters that were apparently usedpast the airport screening devices.

If the knives werent metal, for example, there would be no detection, although the weapons could be just as deadly as metal ones. In my research, I uncovered an even more disturbing fact. Airlines routinely allow people to bring knives with blades that are up to four inches long onto airliners!

On my key ring is a small, but sharp utility knife with a two-inch blade that flips out. It looks harmless enough. I bring it with me on airline flights routinely and have never been stopped or questioned. When you consider doubling the blade length, however, were talking about what could be a lethal weaponespecially in the hands of terrorists.

Clearly, this is not a failure of technology, but a failure (by the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration) to think rationally.

That issue aside, some security experts say that while sophisticated screening equipment is in place at some airports, often the personnel assigned to use them are improperly trained, or not trained at all. In fact, according to a recent New York Times article, “the workers who operate the metal detectors are poorly paid, transient and work for contractors that are often poorly supervised by the airlines.”

Again, the failures seem to be on the human side, rather than the technology side. Could newer technologies such as imaging systems that “see” through a persons clothing to reveal anything hidden have stopped these hijackings? If the systems were in place, and if the operators were trained, perhaps the answer would be yes. Then again, small knives and box cutters might be allowed on board anyway.

This isnt to say that the technology is keeping pace with the threats it needs to guard against, however. As far back as 1994, the General Accounting Office reported that “the FAA has made little progress toward introducing new detection systems into every day use.” Among other failings, said the GAO report, the FAA was not integrating different technologies into total systems, and not giving enough attention to “human factors.” (Yes, there we have that same problem again.)

In July 2000, the FAA said it would purchase up to 800 new X-ray machines that have a unique feature designed to improve the effectiveness of human screeners. According to Airwise News (, the Threat Image Protection (TIP) technology in these machines randomly display false images of weapons on X-ray images of luggage to help keep screeners alert. “When a screener detects a threat and hits the button to stop the suspect bag, TIP flashes a congratulation message and records the screeners performance,” said an Airwise article.

The idea is that screeners who dont perform well can be reassigned to other tasks or relieved of duty. Thats certainly welcome news for those of us who must routinely put our safety in the hands of such employees at airport security checkpoints.

The tragic experience of the attacks on America has indeed brought home a critical failure of technologythe failure to integrate the necessary human aspects into the tasks we expect our hardware and software to perform. Much as we might like to (for economic reasons), we cannot leave the safety of our families, our friends and our selves in the hands of faceless machines manned by indifferent or unskilled operators.

Yes, technology can fail on occasion, but it does not seem to have failed us here. In fact, technologies such as sophisticated eavesdropping systems and satellite imaging may ultimately help us in tracking down the perpetrators of these evil deeds.

We must insist, however, that our leaders provide for the best-paid, best-trained operators to utilize these technologies and interpret results. To allow anything else to happen is irresponsible and puts us all at greater risk in an increasingly risky world.

Meanwhile, we are left to cope with the harsh reality thatadvanced technologies notwithstandingwe are far from safe, even separated from most of the world by two major oceans. It is a sobering reality that is felt acutely here in this community.

There is a park built on a pier that juts out into the Hudson River at Hoboken. In the days following this tragedy, hundreds, perhaps thousands, have come out to the park daily, turning their faces to the southeast toward the huge dust and smoke cloud that dominates the New York City skyline where the World Trade Center once stood.

It will be some time before any semblance of normal life returns to this city.

As one park observer put it”no ones playing Frisbee today.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 21, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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