It regularly comes as a surprise to people that our own infrastructure can be used against us. And in the wake of terrorist attacks or plots, there are fear-induced calls to ban, disrupt or control that infrastructure. According to officials investigating the Mumbai attacks, the terrorists used images from Google Earth to help learn their way around. This isn’t the first time Google Earth has been charged with helping terrorists: in 2007, Google Earth images of British military bases were found in the homes of Iraqi insurgents. Incidents such as these have led many governments to demand that Google remove or blur images of sensitive locations: military bases, nuclear reactors, government buildings, and so on. An Indian court has been asked to ban Google Earth entirely.
This isn’t the only way our information technology helps terrorists. Last year, a US army intelligence report worried that terrorists could plan their attacks using Twitter, and there are unconfirmed reports that the Mumbai terrorists read the Twitter feeds about their attacks to get real-time information they could use. British intelligence is worried that terrorists might use voice over IP services such as Skype to communicate. Terrorists may train on Second Life and World of Warcraft. We already know they use websites to spread their message and possibly even to recruit.
Of course, all of this is exacerbated by open-wireless access, which has been repeatedly labelled a terrorist tool and which has been the object of attempted bans.
Mobile phone networks help terrorists, too. The Mumbai terrorists used them to communicate with each other. This has led some cities, including New York and London, to propose turning off mobile phone coverage in the event of a terrorist attack.
Let’s all stop and take a deep breath. By its very nature, communications infrastructure is general. It can be used to plan both legal and illegal activities, and it’s generally impossible to tell which is which. When I send and receive email, it looks exactly the same as a terrorist doing the same thing. To the mobile phone network, a call from one terrorist to another looks exactly the same as a mobile phone call from one victim to another. Any attempt to ban or limit infrastructure affects everybody. If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.
Communications infrastructure is especially valuable during a terrorist attack. Twitter was the best way for people to get real-time information about the attacks in Mumbai. If the Indian government shut Twitter down – or London blocked mobile phone coverage – during a terrorist attack, the lack of communications for everyone, not just the terrorists, would increase the level of terror and could even increase the body count. Information lessens fear and makes people safer.
None of this is new. Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.
This essay originally appeared in The Guardian.
EDITED TO ADD (1/29): Other ways we help the terrorists: we put computers in our libraries, we allow anonymous chat rooms, we permit commercial databases and we engage in biomedical research. Grocery stores, too, sell food to just anyone who walks in.
EDITED TO ADD (2/3): Washington DC wants to jam cell phones too.
EDITED TO ADD (2/9): Another thing that will help the terrorists: in-flight Internet.
Posted on January 29, 2009 at 6:00 AM •