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UC Berkeley project focuses on information technology, homeland security

– A new project at the University of California, Berkeley, is assembling leading scholars and scientists to explore information technology and homeland security. The group first will examine how technology can better assess and mitigate risk for vulnerable ports and financial systems.

The Information Technology and Homeland Security Project - based at the campus's Goldman School of Public Policy and the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy (BRIE) - is kicking off with "Managing the Unbounded Risk," a Sept. 18-19 conference.

Representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, ports, Internet security companies, and other organizations will join UC Berkeley experts at the event, co-funded by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and held at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Topics will include cybersecurity, risk management in insurance and finance, civil liberties implications of some technological solutions, electronic crimes and other issues relating to information technology and homeland security.

Some experts warn that terrorist threats to ports, power plants, financial markets and other infrastructure from a combination physical and cyber attack could result in "an electronic Pearl Harbor," says Jay Stowsky, executive director of the new UC Berkeley project. But he adds that the threat is really "more subtle and insidious than that."

"Unfortunately, the United States is extremely vulnerable to attack and disruption by groups that wish to immobilize information technology networks that underlie so many systems -- from health care to finance and power grids to ports," says Michael Nacht, dean of the Goldman School and an authority on national security.

Among the first questions the new project will investigate, Stowsky says, are, "What's the actual nature of this threat? How do we assess the risk to society's key infrastructures? and How might information technology be used to mitigate the risk?" Stowsky, a former staffer for technology policy at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, joined the project after five years as associate dean for school affairs at the Haas School.

In addition to faculty from the Goldman School, the project will draw on faculty and scientists from UC Berkeley's College of Engineering, BRIE, the Graduate School of Journalism, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the campus's schools of business, information management and systems, and law. UC Berkeley is a natural home for the project because it has so many world-class experts in fields related to national security, says Stowsky.

"In particular, we have some of the leading developers of information technology, sensors and nanotechnology," Stowsky says. "We also have some of the most thoughtful social scientists and legal experts who are knowledgeable about the social and legal contexts in which new security and surveillance technologies would be deployed."

"Nobody really understands yet how to measure the risk of a terrorist attack on any particular person, place or thing in the United States," says Stowsky. An expert on the relationship between commercial and military technologies, and on the military's impact on the economy, Stowsky also serves as co-director of research at BRIE.

"We can't protect everyone or everything. Not everyone or everything is equally at risk," says Stowsky. "Technical solutions alone cannot work, and may not even be implemented, due to conflicting economic incentives, psychological motives and political interests."

And if technological or market solutions aren't implemented, Stowsky says, "what gets protected is a matter of politics. And there are a lot of questions being raised right now, for example, about the homeland security budget and what the Bush administration has or has not funded in terms of local prevention and emergency response."

Some companies and jurisdictions are skeptical of the need for any expensive and invasive security, Stowsky says.

"Even when they see the need, many of them are not willing to make extensive, pricey investments unless they think their counterparts and competitors will do the same. The risks are interdependent; your risk of cyber attack depends not only on what you do to protect your own network, but what others connected to the network have done to protect themselves," he says.

Nacht says the United States "is a 'target-rich' environment with literally tens of thousands of plausible targets where roughly 85 percent of information technology systems are in private hands and are not well coordinated with each other."

Stowsky says terrorist attacks will happen, "but not very often, and they will tend to happen in only one or two places at a time. Yet, we're spending all this money all over the country to deal with this threat."

Eventually, he says, people will ask, "'How come you're protecting the Port of Seattle, but not the Port of Oakland?' If we're lucky, they might also begin to ask, 'Why are we spending all this money on preparing for a biological attack when 10 years have gone by and nothing has happened?'"

The project grew out of conversations between Nacht; Dean Orville Schell of the Graduate School of Journalism; Linda Schacht, a San Francisco Bay area journalist and lecturer at the journalism school; and her husband, John Gage, CEO of Sun Microsystems, Inc. Schacht and Gage have provided much of the seed money for the multi-year endeavor, with additional contributions from Lawrence Livermore.

Stowsky says research universities like UC Berkeley have a lot at stake.

"We're going to be looking at what it means when we start being confronted by all sorts of restrictions on research contracts funded by the federal government, citizenship restrictions, publication and export restrictions, classification, all those sorts of things," Stowsky says.

More and more sensitive research information is available on a CD-ROM or over the Internet, and Stowsky acknowledges the concerns that terrorists could find sensitive information on the Web. And, he says, digital surveillance technologies that may help find terrorists might also allow an unprecedented invasion of personal privacy.

"So, the question of secrecy versus openness in science is a real policy issue, and that's something we're going to look at," he says.

"Homeland security is everybody's problem, and therefore the entire citizenry needs to be fully informed," adds Nacht, adding that widespread dissemination of information about the project as it progresses should stimulate and improve public debate.

UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism will help report on the project.

"Clearly the issue of homeland security is a big one for the media," adds Schell, "because of the myriad ways it may impact the First Amendment, freedom of the press issues and the Internet."