We have scarcely begun to tap technology's potential to make our homeland more secure against terror.
Security is a very big and growing tech business. Cumulative private and public sector security spending in the U.S. is forecast to exceed $1 trillion over the coming decade. The punditocracy has analogized this post-Sept. 11 trend to Cold War-era military spending; homeland security will be a short-term economic stimulus but, ultimately, like military spending, a drag on the nation's domestic production.
The evidence, however, points the other way. Security spending is sparking another tech boom. A security-industrial complex is rapidly emerging, echoing its military kissing cousin, visible in conference exhibitions across the country. More than 800 companies packed exhibit aisles at the American Society for Industrial Security exhibition in Dallas in late September. A few weeks later many of the same companies were at the massive annual Army tech expo in Washington, D.C.
In the past we talked about "dual use" military-civilian technologies, but truth be told, not much of what's in a bomb migrates back to a BMW. However, the money flowing into military and homeland infra-structure security will leverage revolutionary technologies and materials of the new digital age. This will fuel entrepreneurs and capitalists to combat terrorist threats, collaterally spurring a new round of basic innovation.
The military, for instance, needs sophisticated devices to protect its bases in the Middle East. The danger is not from planes dropping bombs, but, for example, from vehicles or people hiding explosives. The same dangers are now faced by military and civilian sites back home, including airports, nuclear plants, ports and banks. Technology that protects soldiers–that can, for example, detect whether something approaching a perimeter at night, in fog or dust, is a person or a dog–is eagerly sought in the private sector, too. All of it inevitably becomes more affordable as deployment spreads from the military to airports and then on down to commercial industries and buildings. A pleasant side effect of all the spending on antiterror technology will be a reduction in crime.
The enabling technologies for terror-sensing tools will rapidly migrate to applications in medicine, industry, transportation, telecom and even entertainment, driving a tech boom. Examples: Sensors to sniff potential chemical weapons will improve industrial processes and environmental monitoring. Scanners to see through packages will advance medical imaging. Infrared vision to keep a 24/7 all-weather eye out will land in automotive dashboards. Radar to monitor perimeters and borders will be seen in safety enhancements in trucks.
There's plenty of money flowing into this new sector. The Pentagon is spending $100 million a year just to help coordinate civilian tech transfer for security. Plus, the Department of Defense is spending $60 billion a year for new technologies–$15 billion for advanced research and development–with security-related technology an important part of the total. Much of the R&D money is flowing to university researchers and startups. Venture capital is targeting this sector, too. Many defense companies, like L-3, GE and Northrop Grumman have security divisions to advance these technologies.
You can expect bumps in the road, not the least from privacy watchdogs who see Big Brother reflected in every lens. We all value our privacy, but the worriers have no imagination. As just one example, emerging technology to find weapons or explosives hidden beneath clothes is devilishly challenging. The American Civil Liberties Union protested in 2002 that using such tools would be like "a virtual strip search." But the ACLU has this backwards. This kind of technology will make true privacy invasions, like real strip searches, less necessary. It will be a cinch to use software to modify scanning images so that they show contraband but nothing more.
The new security-industrial complex will grow, because we need it and because this economic juggernaut will take us down the now familiar tech curve of declining costs.
© 2004 Forbes