There is an old truism - we can not stop progress. The truism has been used to justify investments in technologies that could potentially not only harm people but wipe out the entire planet. While we cannot stop the progress, we still should think carefully about the consequences of the technologies that we invent. Particularly because since September 11, 2001, we are all wondering when will the next terrorist attack occur.
Today we learned of yet another plot. This time, the target was the JFK international airport in New York. Luckily this attack was prevented and three out of the four terrorists are already in custody. But during the report, CNN revealed a curious fact - terrorists have used Google Earth to get access to aerial views of airport facilities. Obviously it would be ridiculous to argue that tools like Google Earth should not be built because terrorists might use them. Yet, after hearing this on CNN one cannot help but wonder: what other seemingly innocent software technologies are we building that can be used to harm us?
Google Earth - cool or dangerous?
Perhaps the next few images and paragraphs will be even more shocking than the fact that terrorists use Google Earth. Firstly, when you go to the Google Earth web site, here is the picture that explains what this tool is good for:
You do not need to be an FBI agent to figure out what gave the terrorists the idea to use this tool, right? And just to be absolutely sure, when you install the tool, the default address that it suggests you visit is: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - the White House! Note also the cursor in the form of cross-hair, below:
To be fair, the animation is very cool. I flew from the White House back to my house and the rendering is quite stunning. But at the same time I could not help but remember when recently a sales person, who was trying to sell me solar energy equipment, used Google Earth to locate my house. That was not a comfortable feeling. There is something about Google Earth that makes us very defenseless. Perhaps it is just our perception and whoever would want to get the map would get it anyway, but nevertheless it is not a comfortable feeling watching a cross-hair zoom into the White House or my house.
Can Social Networks be exploited?
Networks are incredibly powerful things. Long before the rise of social networks, scientists used the mathematics of networks to study many natural and man-made dynamics, including terrorists. It is no secret that modern day terrorist organizations form intricate networks. Unlike a lot of other networks, these are very sparse, with isolated cells working without direct supervision of terrorist leaders. What is remarkable about these and other networks is the structure, because by understanding the structure and the way that it evolves, it is possible to infer a lot about a network.
So let's look at the rising social networks. Certainly they are harmless, right? Well, things are not so clear cut. Just like we are using LinkedIn to establish business connections, terrorists might use it to figure out who is connected to whom. When you search for a person, LinkedIn tells you how you are connected to them. What can be exploited is the fact that if you are just one degree away from someone, you know who they know. This information can be used to reconstruct a subset of the network. Granted this is not easy to do, but it is possible.
Is photosharing safe?
The recent explosion in photosharing and image search engines allows us to look up peoples pictures. While this has been an uplifting phenomenon, there is again a room for misuse. We can only hope that secret CIA agents and their kids have not uploaded too much on Flickr (kids are the hard ones to control!).
The problem is that photos contain an enormous amount of information. Obviously, they reveal what we look like, but they also often show our friends and family. Remember that the first season of 24 was all about Jack Bauer trying to save his family. Unfortunately even the almighty Jack had only partial success back then.
Clearly the technologies that we are developing can be used in a bad way by the "evil doers". But this is really nothing new, and as we said in the beginning of this post - technological progress is unstoppable. So why do we need to think about these things? Simply because it is always better to pause and think about the implications, than blindly rush through things. Just because something is cool does not mean that it is not dangerous. And beyond cool, we can be just a bit more careful. Does Google Earth need to have the White House address by default? Probably not. And it is not even that cool anyway.
Obviously this is a debatable topic, so please jump in with your comments on what web technologies you think are dangerous and how we should be thinking about information and terrorism as we are developing them.