When bad guys use good technology

I have to confess that I am a fan of the CBC. Not out of any sense of Canadian nationalism necessarily, although there is probably some of that too. No, I like the CBC because I like the variety of its programming, especially the radio offerings. I try not to miss episodes of The Debaters, a show where comedians ‘debate’ and I have long liked Quirks and Quarks, the weekly science series.

Another broadcast I have really come to admire is Under the Influence, a show about marketing hosted by Terry O’Reilly. I know what you are thinking: how can a guy talking about advertising be interesting? Actually, it is a fascinating look at something most of us consume without giving it a second thought and a big part of this show’s appeal is Mr. O’Reilly’s background – he worked for years in the business – his style, and his team’s ability to track down and script really neat stories.

An older episode that I listened to this morning turns out to have an unexpected link to terrorism. Entitled The Frankenstein Factor: Inventors Who Regret Their Inventions, this podcast focused on inventors who later came to regret their inventions, sometimes because the product ended up being harmful, other times because of the way their product was used, while in most cases, the creators simply lost control of their creations . I highly recommend you click on the link and have a listen. You won’t regret it.

To cite just one example, one of the Wright brothers, yes those Americans who gave us powered, sustained flight, lived to regret having invented the airplane. He thought their gift to humanity would prevent wars since with aerial observation it would be impossible to have surprise attacks as both sides would know what the other was doing at all times, and hence the desire for war would wane. How wrong he was. Shortly after the first planes were sold to the military, air forces were created to give one side an advantage in war. 116 years after that maiden flight on a beach in North Carolina can you imagine a state that would go into battle today WITHOUT an air force?

I see an analogy with terrorism and will cite two examples of technology taken and warped by violent extremists. The first is dynamite, patented by Alfred Nobel – yep he of the prize fame – in 1867 to make blasting rocks safer in the mining and demolition industries. The invention was quickly adopted by anarchists, the first ‘terrorists’ as described by US academic David Rapoport in his ‘wave theory’ of terrorism, as the weapon of choice. Countless attacks were carried out by this brand of terrorist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words a very useful tool was usurped by those intent on killing the innocent.

The Internet and social media is the other example. Al Gore’s claim notwithstanding, the many who contributed to this technology succeeded in developing “a world-wide broadcasting capability, a mechanism for information dissemination, and a medium for collaboration and interaction between individuals and their computers without regard for geographic location .” Not bad eh?

Let’s face it, we all use and rely on these devices. I know that I could not so easily write my books and blogs and record my podcasts without it. Both accessing the incredibly wide source of information available at the touch of my keyboard and the ability to disseminate my offerings would be impossible to achieve in their absence.

Alas the terrorists have noticed too. Not only do they use this technology to create and distribute their propaganda, issue claims of responsibility for attacks and inspire others to act, but they avail themselves of the Internet and social media to find and stay in touch with recruits (not that the phrase ‘radicalised on the Internet’ is very accurate). And we are having a devil of a time locating and neutralising a lot of their material. The statements of FaceBook, Twitter and other providers notwithstanding, we are just playing Whack-a-Mole with this incendiary material. Every time we take something down it pops up somewhere else. All this stuff is still out there having a psychological effect on victims and acting as an attractant to potential new members.

I have always known that the competition between good and bad actors is heavily weighed in favour of the latter. Bad actors don’t have to play by the rules, which we call laws, and are not hidebound by bureaucracies slow to adapt to and adopt changes and new ideas. Hence their ability to quickly use the very things smart people create to make lives better, albeit in the furtherance of violence.

I suppose it will be ever thus. Still, do not want this piece to be entirely pessimistic. Good people are always thinking up ways to stop bad people from acting. While we may never be able to declare victory against terrorists and criminals it is nevertheless important to keep trying to get the upper hand. And part of this is to have capable people to invent new approaches. I really hope we continue to find and foster these brains.

Besides, do we really have a choice?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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