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Terrorism and Technology

There is a dark side, nonetheless, to the silver bullet of technology. As we move toward greater dependence on the Internet to receive and send information, any threat to that information infrastructure poses a major threat to the nation's security and economic well-being. In the world of the new normalcy, we will have to find additional ways to protect that infrastructure. This is far more than the normal data security issues that corporations and government agencies deal with on a regular basis. This is all about network security, a much more difficult set of problems that range from protecting transmissions to securing the nation's supply of electricity (production and transmission). Due to ongoing innovations in the highly competitive telecommunications and computing industries in the United States and in other countries, the probability of dramatically improving the security of the Internet looks high, even though we may experience some cyberterrorism along the way.

Because of the decentralized nature of the Internet, there is no one giant computer that runs the network. This makes a lethal attack nearly impossible, although hackers have been mounting attacks for nearly two decades. The most they have been able to do is disrupt individual pieces of the network and spoil files on groups of PCs. Both corporations and key government agencies (FBI, CIA, and increasingly, the military) have been developing know-how to counter such attacks, competencies that will now be used more extensively than before.

Of course, the dark side of technology extends beyond issues of data security and the Internet. It also involves science and the reality that anyone wanting to harm a nation has access to technology and scientific knowledge to use in producing weapons of terrorism. Terrorists are empowered in very dramatic ways. Bioterrorism's terrible arsenal, as Time magazine has noted, can threaten nations with smallpox, the plague, botulism, and hemorrhagic fever (a family of viral diseases). Around the world, laboratories can produce and contain supplies of disease-carrying agents. Bioterrorism, as a threat, cannot be eliminated by simply washing our hands after opening mail. Air, food, and water are all vulnerable.

A serious problem centers on nuclear power plants and the availability of plutonium, which can be acquired from ex-Soviet Union scientists and engineers or already has been acquired by rogue groups around the world. The destruction of a nuclear power plant by use of a bomb or crashing a plane into such a facility could create enormous health problems across a wide swath of geography. Officials of the International Atomic Agency are concerned about terrorists who could create a "dirty bomb" by wrapping stolen radioactive materials used in medicine and industry around a conventional explosive such as dynamite. They could potentially use it to make a significant area of a city uninhabitable for many years.

The pervasive irony of technological progress, as represented by the Internet, is that the same function of decentralization sought by the U.S. defense establishment as a protection against attack also serves the enemies of the nation. Because the Internet is so diffused, if one part is knocked out, messages simply get routed along other paths, using different computers to get to their destination. The Internet's portability, decentralized access, and global availability empower terrorists who are out to use technology for their destructive purposes. For them, the greatest value of the Internet is not the opportunity to hack someone's system. It is the ability to communicate and coordinate activities around the world. They do not need to centralize their operations. They can be scattered in remote locations and use cell phones attached to a laptop to communicate over the Internet with coconspirators around the world. In fact, that is how terrorists in 2001 frequently communicated with each other.

In confronting the new normalcy, we face a primary fact of modern life that is represented by technology. As far as the overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned, those who denounce technology miss the point. Don't blame the machine. Blame those who misuse its powers. For Americans, technology is the great facilitator of their success as a country, nation, and way of life. They are committed to technology as they reach out to it for solutions to problems and never more than in confronting the changes and pursuing whatever opportunities that are part of the new normalcy.

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