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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Technology and Terror


I read a story today in the Washington Post that described how the terrorists in Mumbai used technology every step of the way to carry out their plans. From GPS units for navigation, Blackberries loaded with Google Earth maps and images, and satellite phones, these suicide terrorists were well-trained and well-versed in the use of technology. But should any of us be surprised by this? After all, these were young men in their twenties, most likely, well educated young men. The technologies they used are available to anyone simply by going to a Best Buy or any other electronics store. This is not the stuff of James Bond but the stuff of any modern business or college campus.

On the other side of this horrible conflict, most of the real-time reporting came from cellphone video cameras uploaded to YouTube, Twitter accounts that gave a blow-by-blow account of events as they were unfolding. Technology was there for both sides to use (although reports suggest that the Indian forces were a generation behind in the tools they should have had). The standoff was brought in living color, in real-time, into homes around the worlds. The Post story described how Indian families could not tear themselves away from their televisions during the siege. Kids were mesmerized and terrified by the images they could see unfolding in front of them.

So what are we to make of technology in this new age of terror? First, it seems to me that in all ages, people who perpetuate terrorist acts have always used the latest technologies that they could access. Technology is what it is. It is part of the fabric of our societies. But ignore how it can misused at your peril. One thing we keep re-learning is that people whom we like to think of as living huddled in some cave in a remote mountainside in Pakistan are not technology illiterates. Quite the opposite. These people at the fringes are masters at exploiting the technologies available to everyone in the mainstream. They don't have to have a big R&D budget to develop the tools they need. The tools are commercially available at your friendly electronics store.

The second observation I would make is that people whose jobs are to monitor and protect us from such attacks should be savvy not to what is coming out of a DARPA-funded government lab but what is being introduced at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. As soon as a new technology appears, people will think of creative new ways to use it, for good and for evil.

Finally, we live in a world that is connected and wired as never before. I am old enough to remember sitting in front of the TV during the coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was the first time that the news was reported as it happened. Now, it is as close as your cellphone, Blackberry, or iPhone. We live in a world where the real-time news feeds give us little time to react to what we see in front of us. Yet, it is thoughtful reflection...and then action...that will help us avoid the next Mumbai.

Post Script: If you want to see a little more of how technology changes the way we live with current events, look at the extremely detailed account of the Mumbai attacks that is continuously being updated in Wikipedia.

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