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 coordination.
At the foundation of this revolution is the Internet -- a medium that, without a doubt, has completely reshaped mass communication.
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 or hygiene.
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 cyberspace.
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 attacks.
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.
Ariel 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