National security is more than a flick of a switch

The security of our public infrastructure will be an issue for decades to come.

The security of our public infrastructure will be an issue for decades to come. That much is depressingly clear from the events of the past month.

Our transport system, sports stadiums, offices, restaurants — anywhere, in fact, that brings large numbers of people together — will appear fair game to those who bomb indiscriminately.

‘What is to be done?’ is the question that has preoccupied the national media since 7 July. A myriad cultural, political, economic, educational and judicial solutions have been served up — including, of course, technological.

In the face of the terrifying single-mindedness of the suicide bomber, we are keen to seize upon developments in science and technology as possible means of protection. This is understandable, and resembles the eagerness that greets any hint of progress in medical research targeting the diseases that we all dread most.

During July newspaper readers and TV viewers were exposed to a barrage of information about technological innovations which, it is probably safe to say, would have struggled to push Big Brother down the pecking order under any other circumstances.

The nation at large is now thoroughly acquainted with the exciting potential of terahertz and millimetre waves. Pub conversation turns easily to the strengths and limitations of facial recognition technology, and the ability of mobile phone triangulation techniques to track suspects across Europe.

Perhaps Big Brother remained number one on the news agenda after all, only in a form rather more akin to George Orwell’s concept of a surveillance society than the human zoo of light entertainment TV.

If the UK is serious about looking to technology for salvation from the suicide bombers, several factors need to be borne in mind.

First, the lesson from across the Atlantic. Since September 11 the US has dedicated vast and unprecedented resources to its homeland security efforts, with taxpayer dollars by the tens of million dedicated to technological programmes in the field.

Yet after 7 July the US authorities admitted that their most effective response to a threat to their own mass transit systems was a huge increase in police patrols and random searches. Exactly the same response, in fact, as that of the UK, and based not on technology but personnel.

Then there is the issue of how to secure a public transport system the size of the London Underground, especially as London is to host the Olympics in 2012.

There has been talk of ‘airportstyle’ security measures at every station, but this is hopelessly impractical. It would indeed make the system unattractive to wouldbe bombers, but only because it would be empty of passengers weary of queuing for half an hour to make a five-minute journey.

To equip our tubes, trains and even buses with the type of advanced security technologies discussed over the past month, and still keep the nation moving, would be one of the biggest engineering challenges in history. And it would cost an awful lot of money.

This does not mean that the type of advanced engineering underway within the R&D labs of Smiths, Qinetiq, GE and the like won’t have a big role to play in meeting these very real security challenges. It will, but expectations that technology offers any sort of panacea are misguided.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer