Skip to main content

How technology makes us vulnerable

By Marc Goodman, Special to CNN
updated 9:54 AM EDT, Sun July 29, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marc Goodman: It's tempting to think technology will create a future paradise
  • He warns that all advances can be exploited by criminals, terrorists
  • Goodman: Criminals have kept a step ahead of police in using some technologies
  • He says law enforcement can keep pace by seeking help from vigilant citizens

Editor's note: Marc Goodman is a global security adviser and futurist. He is the founder of the Future Crimes Institute and serves as Chair of Policy, Law & Ethics at Silicon Valley's Singularity University. He spoke at TED Global in June 2012. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- The future of science and technology sounds so promising. Unprecedented advances in computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, genetics, neuroscience and biotechnology hold the potential to radically transform our world for the better and create mass abundance for all.

I sincerely want to believe in this techno-utopian vision of things to come, but my work as a police officer and global security strategist working in more than 70 countries around the world has taught me that there is a darker side to these emerging technologies.

The criminal underground is highly innovative and often acts as an early adopter of emerging technologies. As a young police officer, I observed gang members and drug dealers using beepers and mobile phones, long before they were in common use by the general public. Today, criminals are even building their own encrypted radio communications networks, such as the nationwide system developed by narco cartels in Mexico.

Watch Marc Goodman's TED Talk

A vision of crimes in the future

Technology has made our world increasingly open, and for the most part that has huge benefits for society. Nevertheless, all of this openness may have unintended consequences. Take, for example, the 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai, India. The perpetrators were armed with AK-47s, explosives and hand grenades. But heavy artillery is nothing new in terrorist operations. The lethal innovation was the way that the terrorists used modern information communications technologies, including smartphones, satellite imagery and night-vision goggles to locate additional victims and slaughter them.

Moreover, the terrorists created their own operations center across the border in Pakistan, where they monitored global news broadcasts, online reporting and social media in real time, leveraging the public's photos, videos and social network updates to kill more people.

TED.com: All your devices can be hacked

The terrorists in the Mumbai incident even used search engines during their attack to identify individual hostages and to determine, based upon their backgrounds, who should live or and who should die. These innovations gave terrorists unprecedented situational awareness and tactical advantage over the police and the government.

Newer forms of technology are also subject to criminal misuse. Robots are becoming more commonplace, and international organized crime groups and terrorists have lost no time in deploying these technologies as part of their field operations. For example, drug traffickers in Latin America are using robotic submarines to deliver thousands of tons of cocaine annually to the United States.

Last year, the FBI arrested a man in Boston who planned to use remote-controlled robotic aircraft packed with explosives to attack both the U.S. Pentagon and Capitol building. In the future, as robots become more widely deployed, so too could their criminal use and exploitation.

TED.com: How cyberattacks threaten real-world peace

Advances in the life sciences means it is now possible to design DNA on a computer screen and send the DNA code to a "bio printer" for assembly. Our ability to reprogram DNA itself will undoubtedly lead to great advances in medicine, but the danger is that these same techniques can be used to modify viruses, like H5N1 influenza, to become more and more lethal, potentially affecting millions around the globe. To hackers, DNA is just another operating system waiting to be hacked.

We are at the dawn of an exponentially advancing technological arms race between people who are using technology for good and those who are using it for ill.

Though such battles have gone on since the beginning of time, what has changed is the pace of innovation. New technologies and capabilities are emerging so quickly, it becomes increasingly likely they will outpace the capabilities of public safety officials to respond. The threat is serious, and the time to prepare for it is now. I can assure you that the terrorists and criminals are.

TED.com: A 21st century cyber-weapon

Technology is proliferating at an exponential pace and despite law enforcement's best efforts, cybercrime grows unabated. In coming years, we will witness an explosion in the use of robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and synthetic biology. There is little to suggest police will be any more prepared for these emerging threats than they were for basic cyber crimes.

Our current nation-based legal and policing paradigms have clearly not kept pace with the global threat. The paradigm shifts in crime and terrorism call for a shift to a more open and participatory form of law enforcement.


Given the rapid acceleration of technological development, any system that relies on a small, elite force of highly trained government agents may be doomed to failure. Good people in the world far outnumber those with ill intentions. But criminals and terrorists have shown their ability to take up technological arms to harm the general populace. This calls for increased vigilance on the part of ordinary citizens.

The tools to change the world are in everybody's hands. How we use them is not just up to me, it's up to all of us.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marc Goodman.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT