Telework and Terrorism

Most of the reasons we give for adopting telework concern its economic, psychological, and/or environmental benefits. We rarely mention the security benefits. But the events in New York and Washington, DC, on 11 September 2001 give a powerful motivation to add security to the top of the list. Conversely, these events point out the negative possibilities of excessive centralization. 

The World Trade Center was a major symbol of American power (some might say hubris). As many as 50,000 people worked there daily. What a tempting target for a band of maniacs! With one blow they could destroy this symbol as well as thousands of lives. They could paralyze, at least for a time, one of the centers of the world financial industry.

But what if all those information workers in the World Trade Center were teleworkers? Chances are that they wouldn't have been there, that the symbol wouldn't exist. If telework were adopted up to its potential levels, almost half the workforce in the US, the economies of the US and the rest of the world would be much more widely dispersed. The "centers" of activity would be logical rather than physical centers, nexuses of telecommunications activity rather than places. The physical symbols of power would disappear. There would be no chance of bombing a single—or a few—targets in the hopes of waging major destruction.

Please remember that the Internet is the outgrowth of the ARPANET, a computer telecommunications network designed precisely to allow the US military to survive a nuclear attack by decentralizing its power. The destruction of a few nodes or telecommunications links would simply cause the network to switch to other paths for its communications traffic.

The Internet is still serving that purpose. Within hours of the disaster I received emails from a friend whose office was directly across from the World Trade Center. He fled the area and was all right (not the same could be said for the office). Many of the thousands of potential teleworkers who worked across the street—and could have been working from, or near, home—will never be all right.

Ironcally, I still have the access card that the guards at the WTC gave me a year earlier when I had a meeting there with officials of the New York Transportation Authority. The purpose of the meeting was how to move their employees away from the center as a disaster readiness option.

Think about it.

Jack Nilles, 11 September 2001

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