Americans think of D-Day or the invasion of Iraq when they think of war -- massed fleets, armies and planes, tanks and fortifications. But the National Security types and military brass were clearly talking about something else completely.
This sort of offensive, confusing and strange-sounding to non-tech laypeople and those outside the military, will clearly rely heavily on security technology -- surveillance, wire-taps, electronic ID's from cards to voice and fingerprint scanning, biological warfare and defense, e-mail encryption and interception, satellite photographs, the digital tracing of money, the use of pin-point troops and weaponry to go after small numbers of terrorists located in inaccessible cells in distant countries. Such a conflict raises all sorts of policy questions, from our grasp of different cultures to the nature of religious fundamentalism to changes in traditional ideas about civil liberties, to use of the Net as a communications medium for terrorism, to technologies that might make airplanes and buildings safer. People have suggested more sophisticated X-ray devices to spot weapons and bombs, stronger pilot cabins, buildings less massive and vulnerable than the World Trade Center towers.
Most officials were quick to say the war would like unlike any other, and that drafting vast numbers of people wouldn't be necessary. This war would be fluid, varied, combining weaponry with diplomacy and economic pressure.
The intelligence experts who came out of the cold last week were nearly unanimous in agreeing that old-fashioned spies -- sometimes unsavory humans -- were crucial to get close to terrorist "cells" but also that new forms of communications -- e-mail, cell, the transmission of encrypted files -- required new laws and better technologies to monitor them, since they were terrorist tools. Also needed, they said, are computer programs to better track the movement of money.
Is such a war possible? Technologically feasible? Can encrypted terrorist communications really be followed online? Is it possible to trace money so precisely by digital means? To what degree can civil liberties or privacy be protected in this context? Is there technology that can spot a knife in a briefcase or hidden in a human body? How close can satellite surveillance take us to small terrorist hideouts in urban or rural areas? Is the idea of the mobile, tech-equipped soldier feasible? What weapons would he or she carry?
Over the last few years, I've gotten e-mail from academics, defense researchers, satellite trackers, government cryptographers about various issues relating to technology. It would be interesting to hear from some of you who know more about this than most people. In fact, some of you might be directly involving in working on these things.
America's defense and policy planners are calling for a new kind of war and a new kind of warfare. Few people have any idea what it might look like or how it might work.