Graduate student analyzes role of technology in Paris attacks

By Robert Reinfrank

Whenever a society experiences a tragedy such as what occurred recently in Paris, it begins to search for answers. How could this happen, and why did it happen?

A number of explanations have been put forth. Islamic State, of course, and global Jihad. The civil war in Syria and the mass migrations of refugees fleeing it and other conflict zones around the world. Global economic and geopolitical imperialism by advanced nations. Intelligence failures. The list goes on.

These are all pieces of the puzzle, but if we take a step back from the proximate causes and contributing factors, we can link this event to technological advancement, which continues apace.

In my article on the Charleston shooting, I noted that education and prevention must play a role in deterring and preventing ideological extremists from perpetrating hate crimes, hazarding somewhat controversially that it might be even more important than controlling guns themselves.

My argument rested on the simple fact that people can easily manufacture or acquire explosives, projectiles or other instruments of killing, especially in the Information Age. As such, states could never regulate all the tools with which someone could do harm. The issue was therefore not so much about the particular tools used, but about stopping the people who wished to do harm.

So with this in mind, let us consider what states can do to maintain a civil society and protect it from such attacks as recently occurred in Paris.

For the last decade or thereabouts, potential attackers were quite effectively stopped by our “pre-crime division;” that is, by government programs that could and would surveil everyone and everything at home and abroad.

There was in fact a general lull in successful terrorist strikes in the developed world. Al Qaeda even lost its street cred, leading to a splintering of the group and the rise of what would become Islamic State, an organization that emphasizes battlefield successes in the present over long-term strategic maneuvering (and that had been relatively unsuccessful until last Friday).

But we could also argue that a clock was placed on this status quo in 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked the details of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs. That disclosure greatly compromised the national security of the U.S. and other states for at least two reasons:

First, it has clearly underscored the logic of changing tactics and adopting old technology. Research shows that once people become aware that they are being observed, their behavior changes.

We are thinking of the movie Casino: once Sam and Nicky suspected that they were being wire tapped, they took to meeting in person in the parking lots, masking their mouths with their hands to avoid the lip-reading police with binoculars. Simple, yet effective.

The only way to be certain that you are not being watched is to remove the capability, and there are plenty of old school ways to communicate and organize, especially for disciplined groups that eschew digital communication technologies and have time on their side.

Second, and perhaps more important, lifting the veil provided a very compelling reason for greater cyber protection, and this has directly and indirectly motivated the development and dissemination of advanced encryption software that even governments cannot crack.

Human beings are creative, and when faced with a challenge, we come up with solutions. This innate ability and desire to overcome is what defines us and has defined the course of human history.

From a policymaking standpoint, however, this can be problematic. Sometimes it might be better to let something alone, for drawing attention to an issue will just spur more minds to think of ways to circumvent the state, risking an even worse situation down the road. For example, we recently saw this principle at work in Russia, just in reverse, when Moscow banned access to Wikipedia only to lift the ban days later.

From this perspective, we would argue that Snowden has motivated and accelerated innovations in encryption software as well as terrorist organizational structures and tactics, all of which handicap law enforcements’ ability to prevent these attacks from happening, thus making their occurrence more likely.

So what are the consequences when, in response to perceived affronts to their privacy, hoodie-wearing techies create and distribute free, world-class encryption software? Is it that our email accounts are now safe from prying eyes, and we can engage in worry-free text messaging? Or is it that the technological balance is leveled and away from the good guys?

As far as Europe is concerned, of course such terrorist attacks are more likely in the context of failed states, civil wars and mass migrations in its periphery. But the bottom line is that the few state organizations that have been tasked with stopping these attacks have been severely disadvantaged now that their technological edge in surveillance is eroding, probably once and for all.

Some have argued that as far as terrorist attacks go, this was not that bad, and from a loss of life perspective, they have a point — this was not a 9/11.

And at the same time, technology is clearly making our everyday lives better, as measured by the lowest infant mortality, highest life expectancy and greatest consumer surplus the world has ever seen. But technical change is also increasing unemployment and inequality, and stressing our political institutions, just as it enables the more efficient killing of others, endogenously destabilizes other states and threatens to draw great powers into conflict, with potentially devastating consequences.

It is hard to say what all of this means. But when we think about the Paris attacks and how these developments interact in the grand scheme, we can better understand what Melvin Kranzberg meant when he said “technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.”

Robert Reinfrank is an MBA student in the Cox School of Business.

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