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Commentary: Technology no longer our best defense

Last week we discovered that today's high-tech arsenal left us prepared only for yesterday's wars. The rubble of the Trade Center crushed not only our friends and our innocence; it also buried naive assumptions about technology as our shield and armor, says Rob Fixmer.
Written by Rob Fixmer, Contributor
World War III wasn't supposed to work like this.

For decades, we based survival strategies on high-tech assumptions about our foes and ourselves. We unleashed the atom and spent billions devising ever more sophisticated systems for delivering its destructive power. We rattled our high-tech sabers all the way to the moon. We unleashed the digital revolution and leveraged the returns to spend our enemies into surrender. This was how a superpower prepared for war and guaranteed peace. Technology was our castle, our salvation.

Last week we discovered it was our Maginot Line.

Armageddon didn't ride in on ballistic missiles or find us with sophisticated satellite guidance. It didn't spring from a superpower arsenal or state-of-the-art weapons labs. Mass destruction, it turned out, required nothing more sophisticated than mass transportation--Molotov cocktails of titanium and jet fuel tossed over the walls of Fortress America.

Within hours of the first attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, General Henry H Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strove to assure the American public that our armed forces were ready. But ready for what? Too late, we discovered that today's high-tech arsenal left us prepared only for yesterday's wars.

The exception was the Internet.

During those first hours after the attack, as we realized we had no defense against low-tech, kamikaze terrorism, one small consolation was that the Internet, a Cold War legacy transformed into a public platform, had given us the means, if not to shield ourselves from an invisible enemy, at least to regroup quickly.

The ARPANet architecture--highly decentralized, massively redundant, developed with pocket change by the Department of Defense and academics in the 1960s--proved itself resilient, as billed. Thousands of nodes in one of the world's largest data centers crumbled in dust and flames, but at the end of the day, the network was standing, virtually unscathed.

Volume overloads and catastrophic damage plunged copper and wireless circuit-switched networks into chaos. But the packet-switched Internet plugged along. People who couldn't make cellular or landline calls anywhere in the 202, 212 or 917 area codes were able to do business and communicate with family and friends using email and instant messaging, virtually without interruption.

Unfortunately for callers who spent frantic hours trying to learn the fate of colleagues or loved ones, a packet-switched alternative lay near at hand, but was of no use. Directly across the Hudson River sat ITXC's Voice-over-IP super-POP. Its enormous capacity is leased to long-distance companies, which regularly reroute calls over the public Internet to reach overseas destinations or, domestically, to level spikes in call volume. The quality is so high that we never realize our calls are being switched in and out of IP networks. But because Verizon Communications, like most regional Bells, has no interface with a VoIP provider, this capacity was not available to relieve stress on local exchanges.

To be sure, VoIP has its own limitations in times of extreme demand, most notably latency that can produce dropouts, echoes or other distortion. But in times of crisis, any connection that can be understood is better than no connection at all. Circuit-switched networks are, by their nature, rigidly finite. Packet networks are malleable and instantly scalable. Tomorrow, I suspect, the Internet will be a much more potent emergency response system than it was last week.

That is not to suggest that Verizon was unprepared. The Bells' investment in circuit-switched networks is enormous, and in a crisis, they judiciously prioritize calls to ensure that the highest number of emergency communications get through. But "emergency" is in the mind of the user. To a frightened, anxious citizen, there may be nothing more important during a national emergency than a simple dial tone.

As the nature of war has changed, so should the nature of our defense. Clearly, we must still be prepared to defend against more traditional attacks by hostile nations. But we must also be prepared to fight a new and more frustrating type of conflict.

Last week, as markets collapsed around the world, we discovered that globalization immediately transformed the destruction of a major commercial nerve center into a world war. When the shock and sadness at the loss of innocent lives have finally settled in and we begin to assess the broader damage to our nation and economy, we will come to understand that from this day on, all warfare is information warfare. The rubble of the Trade Center crushed not only our friends and our innocence; it also buried naive assumptions about technology as our shield and armor.

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