January 6, 2006
By Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
The debate about anti-terrorism eavesdropping focuses public
attention on the nexus between technology and politics and how the
two affect our lives. The short answer is, power, including
computing and telecom, can be a force for good -- or evil,
depending on users and stakeholders.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, computer power and
communications have exploded around the world. Despite these
amazing developments, however, many governments have been slow to
keep up with these changes -- and unfortunately that has
handicapped efforts to stem the spread of terrorism.
Areas that were once shut off are now online, exchanging
information at the speed of light. In the Middle East and Eurasia,
though they lag behind the developed West, telecom use is rapidly
on the rise, especially among young people.
Since the year 2000, Internet usage in Russia has grown by over
six hundred percent. Today, 22 million Russians out of 144 million
are online, over 15% of the population. These Russian net users are
primarily younger, better-educated individuals who are likely to be
politically active. Russian Internet usage will likely grow by as
much as 25% per year.
And cell phones have become commonplace throughout Eurasia. In
1996 only 10,000 Russians owned mobile phones at a price of $2,000
each. Today, 80 million Russians -- sixty percent of the population
-- own them and the price has dropped to $100. In Moscow and St.
Petersburg, over 90% of residents own cell phones. Even though much
of the metropolitan market has become saturated, Western investors
have hailed Russia's cell phone market as one of the fastest
growing in the world -- largely due to many Russians living outside
of city centers and the reach of traditional land lines.
While cell phone use in the Middle East is exploding, Internet use
still lags behind.
With so many tools available to them, political change agents and
groups have effectively harnessed this technology in three major
ways: to distribute propaganda, conduct research, and facilitate
At the foundation of this revolution is the Internet -- a medium
that, without a doubt, has completely reshaped mass
Prior to the Internet's introduction, opposition political
movements had their work cut out for them. There was meeting with
people, plotting behind closed doors, undermining one's opponents
-- things that generally took a lot of time and effort before there
was any possibility of reward.
Today this process functions a bit differently. With as little as
$100 and a phone-line, nearly anyone can create their own political
pet project in their pajamas, regardless of their looks, charisma
Just 10 years ago, it would have been difficult for a radical
movement such as Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of
Liberation), to raise any substantial sum of money given its low
profile on the world stage. Today that same organization is
successfully raising millions of dollars every year thanks to an
easy-to-find website that can be read in Arabic, Turkish, English,
Russian, Dutch and Danish.
And that is certainly the lighter side of this enterprise. Videos
of U.S. and allied civilians and servicemen, as well as Russians,
Nepalese, Koreans, Israelis and others being beheaded, circulate
Given its enormous potential for propaganda, fundraising and
recruitment, the unfortunate reality is that the Internet is and
will remain the vehicle of choice for radical groups -- a
disturbing testament to power and pace of innovation.
In addition to propaganda, radical groups have also begun to
utilize technology for research. Millions of pages on bomb-making,
explosives, rocket-building, command-and-control, and even
assassination techniques, are available on the net. Using a
computer and a phone line, one may get a "degree" in terrorist
operations or get up to speed in production and use of chemical and
biological weapons. Just as you might plan your next vacation using
the Internet, terrorists and political revolutionaries are
beginning to use the Internet to study targets and plan
It has been reported that al Qaeda has been using data mining to
select potential targets, using the same methods that companies use
to find customers. By collecting intelligence on possible targets,
especially critical economic nodes, and entering that information
into a database, terrorist groups can identify structural
weaknesses in facilities as well as predict the larger overall
effects of an attack.
Finally, terrorist groups use modern technology to communicate,
coordinate operations or manage political activities. Networked
computers and cell phones provide an enormous advantage in scope
and speed of data dissemination. They are indispensable to manage
small groups of people in real time -- something that was not
available to commanders, spy chiefs, officers and operatives in the
World War Two era.
Al Qaeda operatives relied heavily on the Internet in planning and
coordinating the September 11 attacks. Federal officials found
thousands of encrypted messages that had been posted in a
password-protected area of a website on the computer of Abu
Zubaydah -- a mastermind of the September 11th attacks. To keep
their identities hidden, the terrorists used the Internet in public
places such as Internet cafes and communicated using free Web-based
e-mail accounts such as Hotmail.
As modern technology such as the Internet and mobile phones
becomes more widespread, governments will face increasing
technological challenges from revolutionary groups and terrorist
groups that seek political change.
Governments have chosen to use modern information technology to
keep files, tap phones, monitor people's movements, to film and
photograph, and process images digitally. They can track money
flows through computerized banking systems and credit card records,
or track movement of dollar bills, oftentimes for good purposes,
but sometimes for bad.
When democratic revolutions advanced in Eastern Europe in the late
1980s, many believed that the rapid pace of technological
innovation in communications was a sign of progress. Like so many
past achievements however, new communication tools may promote
political change, whether it's freedom or terrorism.
Technology is neither ethical nor unethical. People are. The
challenge that faces us all is to be ahead of the technological and
legislative curve and ensure it is used for good, not harm.
Cohen is research fellow for Russian and Eurasian
studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in TCS Daily
The debate about anti-terrorism eavesdropping focuses public attention on the nexus between technology and politics and how the two affect our lives. The short answer is, power, including computing and telecom, can be a force for good -- or evil, depending on users and stakeholders.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
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