Brad Sinkaus

The unveiling of the 9/11 Memorial Museum last week was a solemn reminder of the profound loss sustained on that day almost 13 years ago, but was also an opportunity to examine our progress. In that time, security in our nation has evolved dramatically, not only due to security modifications implemented as a result of the attacks, but also because of significant technological advances.

To illustrate this point, in 2001, the Nokia “brick” was the latest cell phone technology. Twitter was a made-up word; and instant messaging was the preferred form of virtual communication. Times have changed. The advent of new technology has allowed for a changing risk environment; but more importantly, it has created a new role for ordinary citizens as key participants in their own security protection and awareness.

This role was most recently visible during the Boston Marathon bombings last year, as social media played a crucial role in shaping incident response. According to the Pew Research Center, 56% of those aged 18-29 received their news about the bombings from websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and in total, one quarter of Americans received their information from social media platforms. During the bombing and in its aftermath, social media provided a medium for citizens and law enforcement. People consistently tweeted photos and updated their Facebook statuses with information,  while law enforcement organizations kept citizens informed via their own social media accounts.

Technology also played a key role in identifying and capturing the suspected bombers. Security cameras in the area provided the first images of the suspected bombers, bystanders provided tips through uploaded photos and videos, and police used thermal-image technology to eventually determine that a suspect was hiding underneath a boat cover in Watertown, MA. The Washington Post described it best:  “How federal and local investigators sifted through that ocean of evidence and focused their search on two immigrant brothers is a story of advanced technology and old-fashioned citizen cooperation.”

In addition, technology has enabled citizens to be more cooperative and capable in security awareness than ever before, and they seem eager to rise to the challenge.  On a recent Metro ride, I noticed a commotion at the other end of the train car. There was an isolated bag in the corner of a seat and multiple passengers were attempting to contact the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the D.C. metro system, to inform them of the incident.  This display of security awareness is a hallmark of living in a post-9/11 world, and demonstrates the effectiveness of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) public awareness campaign, “If You See Something, Say Something.”

Ironically, a fundamental component of today’s technology is the one area in which individuals lack heightened security awareness – the Internet.  As a result, cyber security has moved to the forefront of security initiatives, but the severity of the risk has not yet been grasped by the general public.  For example, the Internet is still reeling from the massive effects of Heartbleed, the security vulnerability that compromised the encryption of personal identification information on multiple sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon.  However, almost half of the people who heard about Heartbleed have not changed their passwords, and a vast majority of these people admitted that they were not concerned about the risks Heartbleed poses.  Though technology has proven an invaluable tool for citizen involvement in security awareness, it has undoubtedly provided a false sense of security for those same citizens when it comes to the Internet.

This is not to say that work to improve cyber security and awareness of cyber security risks is not taking place. Universities are offering advanced degrees in cyber security, and private-sector participation in public-private partnerships has become a critical mechanism for cyber security awareness. Every day individuals are devising innovative ways to fight cyber-crime.  While it is unclear how cyber-crime will affect technology’s influence on security modernizations, it is evident that the role technological advances have played in bringing awareness to the average citizen is unprecedented, and marks a new era of public engagement and collaboration to fight this threat as well.