Good Guys and Bad Guys with Powerful Tools

Alec Ross spoke at Brookings this morning on 21st Century Statecraft. His speech was good, and similar to the one he gave at PopTech earlier this year. If you want to get the gist, I'd encourage you to check out the video from that conference, or wade through my live-tweetery from today's event.

I do, however, want to delve into one particular aspect of the speech-- something he spent more time on with his DC audience than he did with the techies in Maine: the potential for new technology to be used by bad actors to nefarious ends. This is a subject that almost always seems to come up when I'm talking about technology and statecraft, particularly when I'm talking to folks schooled in low-tech ways of doing things (read: old people). 

Computer TerroristIn a few recent blog posts, I've written about ways social networks, mobile phones, and other technology can and have been used by authoritarian governments, terrorist elements, and other bad guys to do bad things.  My point, basically, is that these technologies are just tools-- neither inherently good, nor bad-- and they should never be the ends of any initiative in themselves.

A pretty unbelievable new case of the undesirable use of technology was reported in today's Wall Street Journal. Militants in Iraq and Afghanistan have been using inexpensive, off-the-shelf software to tap into the video feeds broadcasted by our drone aircraft.  They can't control the aircraft, but they can see what we see, and can remove the advantage of surprise we gain from having the drones in the air. Most unbelievably:

The U.S. government has known about the flaw since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it, the officials said. (h/t HH)

As they say in Iraq, all the stupid insurgents are dead. Ten years ago, it might have been safe to assume that a militant hiding in a cave in the Hindu Kush wouldn't be able to hack into the video feed of an unmanned drone. Now it's foolish and dangerous to make that assumption.

In his response to questions about bad actors using new technology, Ross made one very good point, very clearly: The fact that al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and the Iranian government are using new technology is all the more reason to do the same ourselves. Indeed, if we fail to engage people using the increasingly ubiquitous tools that tie our world together, we immediately cede that battleground to our enemies.