Terrorists also use Google: So what?

The attacks against Estonia by the Russians would have constituted an act of aggression in military terms and even resulted in all out war were it conducted by conventional weapons. Estonia didn’t hear a single bomb. And yet, it suffered the brunt of Russian wrath as system after system, and website after website was downed in massive DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service Attacks) in May this year. And all this, over a statue. As an article in The Economist noted:

The alarm is sounding well beyond Estonia. NATO has been paying special attention. “If a member state’s communications centre is attacked with a missile, you call it an act of war. So what do you call it if the same installation is disabled with a cyber-attack?” asks a senior official in Brussels.

Earlier this month, four men were charged with conspiring to blow up jet fuel supply tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. What is interesting here is that Abdul Kadir, one of the men accused of plotting to blow up fuel pipelines, fuel tanks, and buildings at John F. Kennedy International Airport, instructed his cohorts to use Google’s online mapping software to obtain more detailed images of the airport, court documents say.

The Sydney Morning Herald, in a blog post titled Terrorists also find Googe useful, stated that:

While I love Google’s mapping tools and would be disappointment if they were taken away, it concerns me that a would-be terrorist can more easily than ever access detailed satellite images of targets – anonymously and for free.

The knee jerk paranoia of the (somewhat obvious) realisation that the interweb can be used for terrorism resulted in posts such as this, which pointed to everything from websites to social networking as potential sites for fomenting terrorism. One of the comments in response to this post was from “Ipanema” who said that “Technology is marching on. It’s advancement, unstoppable. It’s how we use technology that makes it good or bad.”

In an article on this blog I explored whether technology is, or has to be, neutral for us to use it for progressive social transformation. In fact one can argue that the New Terrorism, as its called, can and will use commercially available technology – from airplanes to Google Earth – to plan terrorist attacks. This is a given, and should come as no surprise to those who study the evolution of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, in which the most developed societies founded upon technology are the most vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, there are those – such as Sen. Liberman recently – who make the case that examples such as the plot to blow up the JFK airport highlights the need for greater policing of the interweb.

In Understanding terrorism better through technology I explore how technology can help us respond to Manichean worldviews and actions by extremists – cognisant that the technologies that help us better understand and respond to terrorism may well be the very same that they use to terrorise us.

The SMH blog post in particular got a number of interesting responses. Anton for example said:

“Can Google maps be used to assist terrorist acts – sure! But terrorists also find paper maps useful, and planes, and automatic weapons, and even certain household chemicals. Strangely enough, no-one seems to be recommending getting rid of those so that the world isn’t so terrorist friendly.

If you think about it, virtually anything could be useful for terrorism.”

The general argument is that just because the terrorist use technology for their own parochial ends, it does not mean that the technology itself should be banned, or restricted to a wider population. We do not ban printing because the terrorists print their propaganda, and in Sri Lanka, we continue to consume State media in spite of the fact that they are obnoxious mouthpieces of any incumbent government (and in many occasions in the past, used to foment, exacerbate and otherwise promote State terrorism). The media, not the medium is the problem and as I’ve stated in the past, the best way to address the appropriation of the interweb by miscreants and terrorists is to use the same technology against them and in defense of the principles of liberty, equality and democracy.

See also:
Writing in pacifism to technology – An impossible vision?

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3 thoughts on “Terrorists also use Google: So what?

  1. My comment in response to a post on PCR blog (http://pcrproject.com/blog/2007/06/12/tech-savvy-terrorists/) on this same issue:

    Dear Madam / Sir,

    An avid reader of this blog, I was disappointed to read this post which seems to pander to the US Administration’s present fascination of the interweb primarily as a means of attack, or being attacked by.

    The revelation of Google Earth’s use in the plot to attack the JFK airport no revelation at all – surely, any amateur recognises that information now in the public domain and on the interweb constitute rich pickings for those who wish to disrupt our democratic way of life?! My submission is, as Fareed Zakaria brilliantly articulates in a recent issue of Newsweek, the emphasis should be on resilience – how soon we are able to spring back to normalcy after a terrorist attack, which no amount of planning and defenses are going to prevent. By highlighting the better uses of Google Earth (such as the Crisis in Darfur initiative), by flagging the need to keep the interweb open and free and the possibilities of using web technologies and ICT for peace, it’s not just a fear psychosis based on terrorism you are helping create, but its anti-thesis – a more peaceful world for us all.


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