Handhelds Join Handcuffs at Boston Airport in Fight Against Terrorism

Handhelds join handcuffs at Boston airport in fight against terrorism
By Leslie Miller, AP

BOSTON -- A pager-sized device that's more likely to be found in a Wall Street briefcase than on a state trooper's belt could become an important new weapon in the war against terrorism.

Logan International Airport is the first in the nation to pilot test the BlackBerry as an electronic gateway to state and federal criminal databases, giving law enforcement officers the kind of information back-up they've long complained they lacked.

The wireless devices, made by Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion since 1999, generally are used by businesspeople who spend a lot of time away from their desks to check e-mails or surf the Internet.

The BlackBerries being used at Logan are packaged with a software that enables officers to send encrypted queries to state and federal databases over a wireless network and get responses in less than a minute.

State trooper Barry Newell carries his BlackBerry on patrols around Logan. With the device, Newell can check whether a suspicious person is on the FBI's terrorist watch list -- without using a radio, dispatcher, cruiser or computer.

"The beauty of this system is you can do it yourself," Newell said.

Logan officials are using the system as part of their effort to strengthen security after 10 terrorists boarded two passenger jets on Sept. 11 and crashed them into the World Trade Center.

The BlackBerry patrols began two months ago after Aether Systems Inc., which makes the PocketBlue software, offered to let Logan try the $89-a-month devices for free. Aether said airports in three other major cities are considering similar tests but declined to name the cities.

At Logan, 10 troopers who'd been trained in counterterrorism were taught to scroll through the BlackBerry's menu and send simple queries to a distant computer about a suspect's criminal history. A "hit" automatically sends an alarm to other troopers using a BlackBerry.

It's more efficient than a phone or radio query, which requires human interaction.

"If you go and ask for a couple of registration checks through a dispatcher, they'll get a little upset because you're adding to the workload," said Gerald Burke, director of the New England Law Enforcement Management Institute. "You can run with the BlackBerry hundreds of checks on your own and you don't bother a dispatcher."

Newell says he's identified several stolen cars in Logan's parking lot with the help of the BlackBerry.

Whether the BlackBerries could have helped prevent the terrorist attacks isn't clear because the watch list only came into being after Sept. 11, FBI spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz said.

"There was intelligence information out there," she said. "But the watch list as we know it, as of Sept. 11, that format did not exist."

State Police Capt. Thomas Robbins, Logan's interim public safety director, thinks the BlackBerry-toting troopers may become a permanent fixture at the airport, which has been trying everything from facial recognition systems to training ticket agents to recognize suspicious activity.

"This seems to be something we'd really take a look at," Robbins said.

Aether's PocketBlue software was launched in June and is now being used by law enforcement agencies in seven states, said David Grip, marketing director for the mobile government division of the company, which has headquarters in Owings Mills, Md.

"Since Sept. 11, there's now a focus within airports and port authorities to use the product," he said, adding Logan is the first airport to try it. Law enforcement agencies are also using the software in Ohio, Florida, California, Minnesota and the District of Columbia, he said.

There may be a market for the software, but, "there's a little bit of a feeding frenzy," said Tim Quillin, an analyst with Stephens Inc. in Little Rock, Ark.

"Every time I see a 'homeland security' initiative with 'homeland' in capital letters, I know we have to look at this with a suspect eye," he said.

Federal transportation officials are open to the experiment.

"We're interested and looking at anything that might improve transportation security," said Paul Takemoto, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.

A human trooper with ready access to information is a good way to keep terrorists off-balance, said professor John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"This is just a first step to a lot more information sharing, which is good," Hansman said. "If you have enough information sharing it will be hard for a terrorist to countermeasure it."

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