A New Threat to Our Freedoms

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The Pentagon, a symbol of our might, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (U.S. Navy)

The shootings against Muslims in New Zealand and bombings against Christians in Sri Lanka serve as a constant reminder that we live in a dangerous and turbulent world in which acts of terror, like the sword of Damocles, dangles over the heads of nations. Although these two attacks are interrelated and ignited by religious indifference (one was a retaliation for the other), the threat of attacks initiated by other kinds of indifference or animus looms large.

It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It appears, however, that time and technology has brought us to a juncture when we are forced to consider such trade-offs. Warfare in the 21st century is no longer limited to the conventional battlefield but to a new distributive warfare waged against civilians. We now face the prospect of a state of perpetual warfare that does not adhere to the standard rules of engagement but waged across many fronts, often against enemies unseen and unknown.

On the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, I wrote President Obama a letter delineating an emerging threat to the security of our nation. September 11, 2001. is a day that will live in infamy, and like December 7, 1941, our nation was completely unprepared for such an attack. On that tragic day, we underestimated the capabilities of our enemies: they did not bomb us with their military aircraft but made bombs out of our own commercial aircraft. In the letter, I argued that the commercial technologies that will become readily available in the public sphere pose a clear and present danger to the security of our nation that may likewise catch us off guard.

As a former engineer in the Defense and Space industries for 35 years, I was part of the post-Moon-landing generation that brought forth technologies which ushered in the Information Age, such as the personal computer, space telescopes, cell phones, the Internet, and unmanned drones — innovations that profoundly changed our view of the cosmos and how we interact with each other on earth.

Many of these innovations were first implemented by government agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Government has long assumed the mantle of R&D of the commercial world; its technologies, often invented to defend the nation against threats from distant shores or to explore new frontiers in space, which include Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the Internet, have invariably migrated into the mainstream. Most notably, the technology developed by NASA to enable remote probes to investigate our celestial neighbors has trickled down to the commercial realm and become increasingly available and more sophisticated in its miniaturization.

But as a result of such innovations, emerging commercial technologies have the potential to implement a new type of domestic warfare hitherto unseen. Bad actors may maliciously employ the advancements in sensors in drones to covertly gather intelligence or target people and places to enact chaos and violence. Sensors suites may be further enhanced by software and incorporate low-power, lightweight mobile electronics and high capacity batteries — technologies that have been driven by innovations in laptops and smartphones.

In the near future, drones, whose costs will continue to decrease, will perform terrestrial operations, with technology conceived from celestial operations, that may also threaten our freedoms. And as drones grow greater in complexity and sophistication and become more specialized in function, they may also incorporate weapons of varying degrees of destruction. The present is nothing more than the past of the future. We must, therefore, prepare today for the unintended consequences of tomorrow.

But the future, it seems, is already here. In July 2018, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has reported that the Islamic State has been successfully modifying commercial drones to deploy them as vehicles for remote detonation. The Pentagon is so alarmed by such potential threats, both on land and at sea, that it has called on the collective resources of the defense industry and Silicon Valley to combat such threats, armed with a war chest of over $700 million.

These threats, so far, have been limited to the battlefield, but there is nothing to suggest that they will not be used for domestic terrorism, particularly as radical ideologies continue to be fueled by advancements in technology. Perhaps soon, the traditional suicide bomber will be completely replaced by autonomous machines whose ability to destroy and hide will be by orders of magnitude more effective than conventional means of waging war.

Furthermore, the Cold War has now moved into cyberspace. The Intelligence Agencies of the United States and the Mueller Report have concluded that Russia belligerently interfered with the 2016 elections to help to elect Donald Trump as president. Representing a paradigm shift, this interference proves that such attacks are no longer limited to misanthropic individuals or Middle Eastern foes but now include major world powers, which can use our innovations and social infrastructure to implement cost-effective ways to disrupt our democracy.

The strategic use of social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter, were integral to this cyber-attack, and the leaders of these companies were unaware of how far foreign entities had penetrated and abused their systems. This deliberate attack on American democracy reminds us that our social landscape and infrastructure are vulnerable. The Internet and social media platforms empower people to globally coalesce for both virtuous and malicious purposes.

In recent years, we have witnessed malicious ransomware disabling governments and institutions until the ransom is paid or a viable countermeasure is achieved. Just this month, the city of Baltimore was, in effect, held hostage and severely hindered by such an attack. Like the WannaCry attack in 2017, which crippled, among others, the National Health Service of the United Kingdom, these attacks may be driven not by ideology but simply by the motive of profit. The perpetrators of such electronic crimes often demand payment in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies that hinder law enforcement from following the money.

All of these examples demonstrate that the paramount danger of distributive warfare arises from its asymmetrical costs: because bad actors may employ inexpensive commercial technology pervasive in today’s globalized world to undermine, exploit, and damage our freedoms at any time, countermeasures to prevent such a threat can only be more costly than the threat. It has already been demonstrated how the Internet can be used as command and control for terrorists, many of whom are savvy to its technologies. As the world becomes more cosmopolitan and dependent on the Internet and computer-controlled systems, we become more vulnerable to various kinds of attacks driven by the the makings of our digital world.

In the next score years, autonomous technologies will dominate the American landscape. The daisy-chaining and convergence of many technologies, as witnessed during the invention of the telegraph and the photograph, of the steam locomotive and the airplane, and of radio and film can bring about monumental change. Such a synthesis in autonomous technologies can create a snowball effect that may replace the need for human involvement entirely.

To this end, we must carefully evaluate the effect of emerging technologies — artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, and drones — and how they could be used to wreak havoc on our infrastructure and disseminate terror to our fellow citizens. In fact, it is not necessarily the attack but the War of the Worlds fear of the attack that can disrupt our daily lives, perhaps best exemplified by the Washington, DC sniper attacks of 2002. Although the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, fear is a powerful weapon and, at times, could seem formidable, foremost, and futile to resist.

What can we do to combat such threats of distributive warfare, domestic and foreign? The response must not only be tantamount to the threat but above and beyond. We must anticipate the threat and implement the infrastructure to combat surprise attacks and track those who want to do us harm. Because the threat is global, the response must also be global, in partnership with our allies around the world. But inexpensive commercial technology is a double-edged sword, and we can also maximize the use of such technologies in our own defense. It also requires, however, the ordinary citizen, in his or her own capacity, to remain vigilant, mindful, and informed. We must all be proactive and united in carrying out our patriotic duty to defend the nation.

But perhaps our response requires that we now reconsider Franklin’s dilemma: should we sacrifice some of our freedoms in exchange for our security? As we build the infrastructure of the 21st century and beyond, we must keep the threats of distributive warfare in mind. To ensure that our countermeasures are effective, cyber-attack prevention and low-cost intelligence gathering should be ubiquitous in their implementation. We may, at a much broader scale, need to incorporate active verification, such as image or voice recognition, and possibly bionic identification, such as digital fingerprints and retinal scans. All of data extracted by these initiatives should be seamlessly available in real-time to the appropriate government agencies.

There is no doubt that such initiatives will evoke the specter of Big Brother. But are these initiatives worth the cost to our personal liberties? Although the Founding Fathers of America were luminaries of an enlightened age, they could not foresee the myriad ways in which technology could threaten the safety of future citizens.

Regardless, the fact remains that we are at the dawn of a Brave New World. History is not a single picture but a mosaic of the past painted by the hands of time, and we must be aware of the pieces that form the vision of our future. We are currently living in a global age transformed by technology, and this technical tsunami cannot be abated. How best to strike a balance and avoid the new wave of terrorism is a question that warrants vigorous and immediate consideration.

The simplest solution is often the best, and it is often the one chosen by our enemies. In the biblical clash against Goliath, David did not slay Goliath with his slingshot; instead, he used it only to disable the giant before decapitating him with his own sword. Might does not always make right, and few would have predicted that the 9/11 terrorist attack would cost the United States thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and launched it into the longest war in its history.

Civilizations collapse when they do not recognize that sometimes a weakness is nothing more than a strength overplayed. For the security of our country and the safety of our nation, we Americans should not succumb to a misguided hubris or become complacent with our might but instead search beyond our strengths for the hidden weaknesses that, before long, may be exploited by those that wish to harm us.

Edited by Gene Limb

Richard Lawson Singley

Written by

Author, educator, historian, former engineer at General Electric. Interested in the origins of all things. Author of A New Perspective richardlsingley@gmail.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Richard Lawson Singley

Written by

Author, educator, historian, former engineer at General Electric. Interested in the origins of all things. Author of A New Perspective richardlsingley@gmail.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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