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Homeland Security Institute Balances Freedom and Safety

Homeland Security Institute Balances Freedom and Safety

March 23, 2009

Robotics & High-Tech, Social Sciences & Humanities

Among Western nations, Israel arguably has the most experience working on the one hand to address the threat of terrorism, while on the other hand maintaining the values of openness and democracy. 

A microcosm of this dual effort is the Institute of Homeland Security at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beer-Sheva.

“Our objective here is to study technology to address threats, but also to address the impact of that technology on democracy,” said Prof. Doron Havazelet, director of the new institute.

“Terrorists want to eliminate the Western way of life; our purpose is to preserve it, and to be sure that the ways we fight terror don’t compromise that,” he said.

On the technological side, during a visit to the university we were able to witness the fruits of research in a variety of areas, ranging from robotics to data mining, to new methodologies for rapidly diagnosing biological threats.

Although the purpose of the institute is pure research rather than consulting with government agencies or the military, the applications of that research are likely to find use in government, the military, or the private sector—and not necessarily in the field of homeland security.

For example, Dr. Amir Shapiro, in the university’s department of mechanical engineering, researches robotics. He has devised robots that crawl like snakes, that climb walls like snails, and that cling to metal surfaces underwater.

Another robot is like a little set of Siamese-twin tractors, which are designed to explore tunnels, helping each other climb over obstacles and rescuing each other when necessary.

The military applications of the clever little devices are clear, but so are the potential industrial uses. For example, the underwater robot could be used to detect explosives attached to the hull of a ship, or to inspect damage incurred by hitting an underwater object.

The robotics lab is an example of the interdisciplinary approach to the study of homeland security issues. The mission of the lab in general goes far beyond security issues, but to the extent that the work that goes on there has security implications, it collaborates with the new institute.

“This kind of interdisciplinary collaboration is a new model,” Havazelet said.

Law, ethics, and other fields in the social sciences also are of interest to the institute, which directly confronts the sometimes conflicting interests of keeping people safe, while safeguarding them from infringements on personal freedom.

“It’s a paradox,” Havazelet said. “When there’s a threat people just want to be kept safe. But there is a need to keep them free, or we lose the society we are trying to protect.”

JUF News is published monthly by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Aaron Cohen is participating on AABGU’s Fourth Annual Murray Fromson Media Mission.