Best Defense

Adapting to the Information Age essay contest (4): Use technology to strip terrorists and insurgents of anonymity

The most important thing the U.S. military can do now to adjust to trends in information technology is to work with Congress and other democratic institutions to address the central paradox of the war on terrorism, which is how to reconcile American interests and values with the imperative to bend every element of national power in their defense.

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By Richard Pruett
Best Defense contest entry

The most important thing the U.S. military can do now to adjust to trends in information technology is to work with Congress and other democratic institutions to address the central paradox of the war on terrorism, which is how to reconcile American interests and values with the imperative to bend every element of national power in their defense.

We are on the cusp of broader, more creative uses of information technology that could enable the United States to achieve dramatic victories by targeting what for most insurgents is a critical requirement: anonymity. But effective ways must be found from the outset to militate against abuse of this attractive technology, lest it transform our nation and others into surveillance societies, giving intrusive governments new levers of social control without parallel in human history.

Information dominance is evolving from a force multiplier into a discrete offensive capability I call “Netwar.” Ubiquitous computing, Knowledge Discovery in Databases, biometrics, radio frequency identification (RFID), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), etc., are combining to actualize concepts discussed in U.S. military doctrine for over a decade — using “networks to fight networks” with perhaps the purest example of a “System of Systems Analysis” approach ever attempted in warfare.

Netwar would compromise and neutralize terrorist and insurgent networks by piercing their veil of anonymity. Anonymity empowers and emboldens insurgents. It gives them the illusion of ubiquity, because they can appear anywhere and then disappear like fish in the sea. All of our range, speed, maneuverability, stealth, precision, firepower and willpower avail us naught when we don’t know the identity of our enemies or their locations.

Netwar would electromagnetically “tag” terrorists in much the same way that biologists trace fish in the sea. A scalable constellation of easily-disguised RFID readers and other sensors would quietly detect, help identify, and then track the movements and associations of suspected terrorists’ ― using archived data, data mining, link analysis, GPS, and forensics ― to allow analysts to secretly map out the terrorists’ entire network. The operational commander can then identify target sets, build legal cases for possible prosecution, and develop plans for coordinated, rapid decisive operations designed to roll up the entire terrorist network with minimal risk to noncombatants.

Imagine a car bomb explodes in a marketplace. Earlier, RFID readers at various sites in the neighborhood routinely recorded the car’s arrival by scanning the passive Electronic Product Codes (EPCs) from RFID tags embedded in the passing vehicle’s tires and windshield. By comparing the combination of these and other EPCs, recorded at nearly the same instant, with other RFID readers at chokepoints throughout the area, their point of origin is quickly traced to a reader near an average-looking shop, which surveillance soon reveals to be a bomb-making factory. Purchase records and previous RFID readings of associated EPCs implicate a frequent visitor to the shop. Continued surveillance of the shop and the suspect yields a long list of related EPCs for additional tracing and mapping. A closely-timed raid of the shop and other sites nets dozens of suspects, together with a trove of new intelligence for developing sequel operations. Ensuing waves of arrests panic the terrorists, sowing distrust and disunity in their ranks.

Movement-sensing “smart dust” information mines, the size of sand grains, strewn along a goat trail in Waziristan, could trigger surveillance overflights or alert rapid response teams. A meshed “colony” of low-observable motes, sharing magnetometer information peer-to-peer, could provide early warning of an advancing tank column. Broadcast over a future battle space by the thousands, they would be too small to notice and numerous to destroy.

Miniaturization and the dropping cost of RFID technology and data storage make such scenarios possible. Though relatively cheap in terms of blood and treasure, Netwar would be far from without cost.

Indeed, unless combined with strong civilian oversight, the strategy is inherently inimical to the future of privacy and American civil liberties. Netwar could create a digital gulag, allowing governments to track the movements and associations of anyone they choose. Our policy and lawmakers must weigh carefully the benefits and perils these seductive new technologies pose before they become pervasive.

These technologies can help secure the United States against cataclysmic attacks by nihilistic terrorists in possession of weapons of mass destruction. But rigorous civilian oversight is essential, right now, to ensure they don’t spur an information counter-revolution subverting the very interests and values at the core of all we seek to defend. American society needs to recognize and mitigate their inherent risks from the beginning. Otherwise, we might soon discover that, in the process of targeting our enemies’ identities, we’ve sacrificed our own.

Richard Pruett is a senior consultant with the Stevenson Group, a new Washington-based business development firm. He is a retired career U.S. Foreign Service officer who spent most of his career in East Asia and the Pacific. He helped establish the U.S. liaison office and Embassy in Hanoi and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. He earned a master’s degree in strategic studies at the U.S. Army War College in 2006. 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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