Monday, December 1, 2008

Reporting or Abetting Terror?

The Australian Courier Mail reports on the extensive use of technology by the Mumbai terror squads:
Amid the arsenal of military hardware, it was the use of humble mobile phones and internet technology that proved a key weapon – one which caught the anti-terrorist forces by surprise. The use of BlackBerrys by the terrorists to monitor international reaction to the atrocities, and to check on the police response via the internet, provided further evidence of the highly organised and sophisticated nature of the attacks. The gunmen were able to trawl the internet for information after cable television feeds to the two luxury hotels and office block were cut by the authorities. The men looked beyond the instant updates of the Indian media to find worldwide reaction to the events in Mumbai, and to keep abreast of the movements of the soldiers sent to stop them.
This makes you stop and ask, Who precisely is served when Western reporters give minute by minute accounts of the locations, strength, and armaments of the counter-terrorist response:
Date: Fri, 28 Nov 2008 04:56:03
After 15 minutes of silence, five commandos in black with heavy-duty body armor have approached the building. Four are carrying assault rifles, and the fifth, possibly their officer, has a radio in his right hand.
Seriously, this is practically a SALUTE report. I guess anyone planning this sort of attack in the future will know that they don't have to bother posting scouts; the media will take care of that for them. How much shorter would the Mumbai siege have been if the terrorists hadn't had intel support from the media? How many lives were ended to support the people's "right to know"? Lets hope municipal authorities take note and immediately bring down the cell networks the next time this sort of attack is attempted.


Elephantschild said...

I wouldn't have thought of bringing down the cell networks intentionally - but of course that's what makes sense.

Of course, the other option would be to regulate Blackberries and cell phones the way we do guns, since that's so very effective.


Bruce Gee said...

Ooh, the sarcasm just drips around here...

This hi-tech journalism and its effects shoudln't surprise us. Just try regulating THAT area! And as to the question of "just who is served?"--why, inquiring minds like mine!

This is just a video game we're talking about, right?

Shane said...

Bruce Schneier disagrees, and so I strongly disagree. I think we want terrorists using these technologies to keep their eye off the ball, so to speak.

The nature of a terrorist attack is usually that it's a very small group trying to cause maximum harm. When you don't have personnel to spare, you can't afford to have a dude and his blackberry watching twitter as well as the authorities can be. The question then becomes why the natural information flow isn't a net positive for authorities.

Cell phone use was critical to public understanding of 9/11, as well as being useful to authorities making decisions as to whether to close airspace or scramble jets. In a terrorist attack, I would not feel served by only a single (big booming voice) AUTHORITATIVE OFFICIAL INFORMATION SOURCE.

Honestly, the best preventative tactic we can do to reduce the effectiveness of terrorist attacks is to make the public more proactive. It has become impossible to hijack a plane for a suicide attack, even with box-cutters and pocketknives, because the entire plane's worth of passengers will stop it. Not sky marshals, and not some official announcement from some radio tower. In a case like this, a hostage pool that is willing to attempt escapes or fight back will keep the effectiveness of an attack low.

Finally, no discussion of the anti-terrorist forces should go without mentioning whatever piss-poor training they received that they'd be scared to engage the enemy.

Anyway, this kind of attack wouldn't happen in America. At least not in the population centers with significant levels of private gun owners. It's enough of a deterrent that no attack of this style would even be attempted.

Shane said...

Ignore that first "so" in my sentence. I had edited the "so do I" incorrectly, and now I sound like a mindless follower of the almighty Bruce Schneier.

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

Hmmmmmnnn. I agree with Schneier's general point, enough to the degree that I retract my suggestion about pulling down the cells. But he doesn't really address my fundamental suggestion, which is for trained journalists to be smart enough not to post information that is absolutely useless to anyone but the terrorists. Stuff like "still gunfire in xyz district" or "trains are running again at blahblah station" serves public purpose. "Five commandos in body armor carrying semiautomatic rifles and, oh, about 6 mags each, hiding behind the red flowerpots on the roof of the yellow building just across from the terrorists" most emphatically does not. Should this be regulated? Lord, no. Should we be able to expect people to know better? I think so.

Shane said...

Yeah that makes sense. I think my anti-authoritarian bias got the best of me there. Upon rereading, yeah. I agree in the sense that professional journalists and ordinary citizens alike should be first and foremost be concerned about reporting details relevant to the ordinary people caught up in the middle of a dangerous situation. Of course, this should go for natural disasters and other life-threatening crises as well beyond just terrorism or crime.

But one of Schneier's commenters made a good point that there should be a way to send text, photo, or video directly to the authorities. Which I think is a good idea (if implemented with any degree of competence). NYC has something like that, and I think a lot of other major cities in the world do, too.