The crowd in attendance at opening night of the NCEITA Forum 2002: “Securing the Future” conference proved to be a who’s who of the high-tech industry in and around Research Triangle Park, and a few others who traveled from as far away as Silicon Valley.

There were a lot of uneasy comments made from many people saying they were surprised so many colleagues were still around considering the crash of both the information technology and telecom sectors over the last 20 months. A lot of those jokes went unanswered by those who listened at the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technology Association’s annual tech showcase.

But it was the message rolling off the stage from the all-star panel — David Balch, chairman of the Taskforce for Homeland Security and the American Telemedicine Association; Roger Rains, chief operating officer of Wilmington-based Crises Management Worldwide; Chris Swecker, special agent in charge of the North Carolina FBI; and Greg Akers, senior vice president of Cisco Systems – that grabbed the spotlight: Communication among everyone in the high-tech industry is the only way to get the Homeland Security Act off the ground and secure the future of the United States.

The night began with remarks from Akers, who has been working diligently with the federal government post 9-11 on security protocols. His theme circumnavigated the mood and reaction of individuals and business leaders over the last six months, saying that the worst thing American businesses can do is to become complacent just because no terrorist attack has occurred since last September.

“My challenge to this group — is to work with the government in ways you never have before,” Akers said. He later added, “There are a lot of snake oil salesmen on the street corners these days.”

Many questions, few answers

Akers was referring to the plethora of companies who are vying for a slice of the $38 billion Homeland Security Act pie. His point was that many of the companies that have answered the government’s request for proposals are not truly qualified to provide the assistance that is required.

Swecker suggested that the area’s entrepreneurs look within themselves and ask what they can do for their country.

“Everyone here has a little piece of this puzzle,” he said. “If (the authorities) can get it all in and get that information back to you — that is what we need to do. There are eight critical infrastructures and only one the government has under its control. That’s where you come in.”

But no one had any plan or suggestions on how the high-tech community can accomplish this task, how the entrepreneurial network that is established throughout North Carolina can better communicate with each other, or what are those eight critical infrastructures he mentioned. There wasn’t any discussion about what needs to be communicated between the high-tech community and the government either; rather, the panel kept insinuating that everyone already knew what they needed to do.

One member of the audience posed the question: The public sector has all of the money and the private sector has all of the assets; what are the barriers to success?

This brought silence from the panel before Akers answered. “The government is like a giant ear with a tiny brain.” But there were no replies on what that ear needs to hear or who may be in the best position to be whispering sweet nothings.

No one immune

Balch talked about communication among health care representatives, and said that the health care system in North Carolina, from that perspective, is broken but that help in the form of Homeland Security dollars is on the way.

“That first batch of money is going into healthcare,” Balch said. “(Outdated technology is forcing) doctors to always look at old data and they need to be able to communicate with each other about what they are seeing.”

Rains also discussed how important it is for businesses to have security systems in place to keep safe their proprietary information, and that the government is willing to assist in this area.

“Annual surveys conducted on major companies show that 94 percent of them have experience a virus attack and that 85 percent of them have had one introduced into their system,” Rains said.

The grim, foreboding words apparently didn’t strike home to many. By the end of the evening, when the panel discussion had dissolved into the threat of nuclear attacks and how business leaders need to be ready to deal with the anxiety that many employees will experience if and when another terrorist attack occurs, nearly half of the crowd in attendance already had left the conference.

“During the next 90 days were are going to see a big pulse of funding and everyone will become a security expert and reorganize their business plan to do this,” Swecker said. “It will be hard to separate the real players from the movies.”

The conference is expected to kick into high gear today and many of the discussions are slated to go into depth on some of the troubling topics that were glazed over Wednesday evening.

For today’s schedule, visit www.nceita.org