Humans Are the Best Security Backup

When the grid goes down, old-fashioned skills save lives.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Nisei Boy Scouts of Troop 41 in Pasadena, California, check maps using compasses as part of a mapmaking project in 1958. (University of Southern California Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images)
Nisei Boy Scouts of Troop 41 in Pasadena, California, check maps using compasses as part of a mapmaking project in 1958. (University of Southern California Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images)

Assembling and reading a paper inventory chart. Knowing where in the warehouse goods can be found. Finding your bearings with the help of the sun and the stars. None of these skills are that hard—and a generation ago most people possessed one or more of them. Society’s essential services—provision of food and energy, say, or transport or banking—functioned pretty smoothly, albeit slowly. Their replacement by digital means has made things faster—but also critically vulnerable. Modern societies need human backup.

Though Westerners are no less talented in practical skills than their peers were 30 years ago, automation means most people aren’t being asked to master them. “We’re in the midst of a sequence leading to full automation because people don’t fully trust the human factor,” said Daniel Jonsson, the research director of the Swedish Defence Research Agency’s defense analysis division. “But that has also made us more passive in security. We can’t even exchange a spark plug in our car because the hood doesn’t open.”

Removing humans—slow and often unreliable as we are—from as many processes as possible can make sense from a business perspective. Machines can off-load ships and conduct inventory faster, more safely, and more efficiently. No more worries about somebody forgetting, arriving late, or having a bad day. And the automation sequence is not ending, on the contrary: According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, another 800 million jobs could be lost to machines by 2030.

But the enthusiasm for automation can override pragmatism. Jobs such as trucking, which still suffer from a severe shortage of critically needed human workers, aren’t seeing wages rise to the levels they need to be—in part because the industry is making a big bet on self-driving vehicles, a technology that may not actually work at all. And machines don’t always do the job better—as anyone who’s tried to swipe their own goods at the supermarket or dealt with the irritation of an automated help line knows well. Sometimes they’re just more appealing to bosses, not to users.

From a security perspective, automation has even deeper flaws. Machines, paradoxically, are much more fragile than humans. They can’t improvise. They don’t have the eyes to spot a problem by themselves. And unless given very specific instructions, they can’t recognize obviously harmful or contradictory orders. They make fewer mistakes than humans, but they can make them on a vastly more damaging scale. As human personnel are stripped away from privatized critical infrastructure such as ports and logistics by the logic of business, these sites become more vulnerable.

And while this is the age of automation, it’s also one of new geopolitical tensions, in which automation has created new conveniences but also vast new vulnerabilities. In the developed world, hybrid warfare (also known as gray-zone warfare or threshold warfare) is replacing the territorial conquest warfare that has dominated interstate relations since time immemorial. As Russia is very skillfully demonstrating, a country can harm its adversaries without a single soldier crossing a border.

By hacking a power grid, an attacker can quickly bring chaos to the target country. Residents having to live in the dark and cold is just the first step. Without power, shops can’t operate their refrigerators or checkouts. Railways can’t run trains, and given that gas stations likewise rely on electricity, switching to cars and buses is not an option either. The disruption of the internet would have similarly damaging consequences. A population suddenly unable to use their smartphones would only be the most visible result. Imagine hordes of people demonstrating against the government for having failed to protect them against an adversary. Or customers unable to use their credit cards storming banks—only to discover that just a few customers had any chance of getting cash.

This doesn’t even necessarily take a hostile actor. In a world of climate change, the possibility of fragile infrastructure getting knocked out by storms, tsunamis, or tornados becomes even higher. (This week, a cargo ship with a loading capacity of 19,000 containers was hit by a storm off the coast of Germany and the Netherlands; 270 containers, some containing hazardous materials, fell off the ship, and many have reached the coast.) And when disasters of any kind hit, improvisation, practical skills, and mutual support are vital to survival. A population that has lost those is an impediment, not an asset.

It doesn’t need to be like that. Without the contributions of the civilian population, Britain would likely not have prevailed in World War II. In May 1940, just before the air war began in earnest, a member of Parliament asked the junior food minister, Robert Boothby, whether he was “aware that large numbers of people will waive taking their rations of sugar and butter if an appeal is made to them.” Boothby responded that he was “well aware of the readiness of the general public to make such a sacrifice in the public interest and should the necessity arise my Noble Friend would not hesitate to make an appeal on the lines suggested by my [honorable] and gallant Friend. The need has frequently been stressed for strict economy in the use of foodstuffs generally and for the avoidance of waste.” During the same war, Sweden went even further. Recognizing that its armed forces would be no match for Nazi Germany if Adolf Hitler decided to invade, the country introduced an all-of-society effort labeled “total defense” that remained intact until the end of the Cold War. Virtually every adult had a role to play in national defense, even if it just meant rationing.

Hybrid warfare is, of course, very different from World War II. But populations can be a national security resources again. In fact, humans are invaluable as a backup to sophisticated tools. The armed forces have already recognized as much. The U.S. Navy has, for example, reintroduced celestial navigation. What humans lack in speed, we make up for in resilience. (Star-based navigation skills famously did the trick for the Magi looking for a newborn baby 2,018 Christmases ago.) It would be hard to thoroughly confuse a naval fleet relying on sailors’ celestial orientation—but it’s entirely doable for an aggressor interfering with GPS signals. Indeed, most developed countries’ armed forces are trained to operate even in situations where all machines have failed. Many soldiers are even trained to kill wild animals should their food supply be disrupted.

Mastery of forest survival skills is clearly too much to ask of most citizens and would at any rate be unnecessary. But as the armed forces know, lacking a backup to machines is not an option either. “In an age of cyberwarfare combined with a rapid move to [artificial intelligence] and digital machines, you have a potential checkmate,” said Mark Hagerott, a retired U.S. Navy officer who is now chancellor of the North Dakota University System. “We need legacy systems as a backup, if they still exist.”

In many cases, they don’t, or they would be prohibitively expensive to resuscitate. But modest backups are possible. “We could train people to operate manual inventory lists,” Jonsson suggested. Hagerott proposed that operators of critical national infrastructure, such as energy, transport, and food companies, should be required to have resilience plans in case of a disruption.

Though NATO does have resilience baseline requirements, many member states and other developed countries lack legislation requiring private companies to operate backup systems. That matters not just to civilians but also to the armed forces. Today, 90 percent of military transport is provided by private companies, as is 40 percent of military satellite communications. Humans with paper inventory lists, or a collection of paper maps, would be a lot slower than digitally maintained lists and maps, and they might make mistakes too. But they’re a whole lot better than no lists or maps.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw