Defense and the National Interest (hat tip: Mark Safranski) notes the use of off-the-shelf technology in the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai:
John Robb, an Air Force veteran of the special operations community has summarized the ability of the Mumbai terrorists to use readily available, off-the-shelf technology to mount their vicious attack. Blackberrys were used in real time to, apparently, hack into and monitor the police response to the carnage; cell phones were used to coordinate tactics. Notably, after cable television lines into the building were cut, the attackers accessed local and worldwide media coverage, including the forces mounted against them, over the internet. E-mail was sent to taunt the local media (and the public).
In one of the articles referenced by Robb, Noah Shactman of Wired.com reminds us of former U.S. Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid’s complaint that, “with their Radio Shack stockpile of communications gear, ‘this enemy is better networked than we are’.”
As John writes, “…these guerrillas were better connected to both the tactical and strategic environment than any US and other developed nation military personnel have ever been (the opposition believes in the strategic corporal, why don’t we?)”. John’s book, Brave New War, and his blog, http://GlobalGuerrillas.com, provide commentary on the modern phenomenon of, what he refers to as, ‘open source’ warfare.
For me at least there are several clear implications of this:
- The civilian authorities need the ability to turn off the wireless data and telecommunications systems, e.g. cell phones, Blackberries in the case of an emergency. Do they have this now? I have no idea. What safeguards would be required for this is something that should be seriously considered.
- The police and military shouldn’t be using these civilian utilities. They need to be on an entirely different spectrum and have serious security.
- The use of these technologies by essential resources, e.g. hospitals, emergency services, etc. needs to considered seriously.
- Dropping your wired phone line is ill-considered.
If the police, hospitals, EMS, and other city officials have these special radios, and civilian communications are cut, what you’ll have is terrorists using those special radios too, but their captives and victims cut off from the outside world.
And keep in mind that you have about a one in a million chance of dying from terrorism, and a 999,999 in a million chance of dying from other stuff, so you really shouldn’t base any day-to-day decisions on what would matter in the event of a terrorist attack.
The point is to raise the cost of an approach not to eliminate it.
Jim, do you look both ways before crossing the street? The odds of your being struck by an automobile when crossing the street at any given time is extremely low. If you don’t look, it’ll get higher.
The problem with dropping civilian wireless comms is that those comms are extremely valuable in routing around chaos. I know for a fact that most of New York City’s emergency management plans rely on rapid dissemination of information to the public along all wireless channels (broadcast TV, broadcast radio, SMS text messaging, and auto-dialing). Civilian wireless comms also allows for localized and individualized responses and flexibility as local social networks can quickly share and disseminate information. So I would be extraordinarily reluctant to shut down civilian comms as highly restricted comms may be more dangerous than open comm.
I think there’s a cost-benefit issue, fester. I’m not sure what the call is.
But I do think that police should be using a different spectrum than the common cell, that modifying off the shelf technology for the police band should be non-trivial, and that police communications should be encrypted.