Nanotech Terrorists and Data Proliferation

The Wrong Solution

Nanotech is still far from being dangerous, but solutions to proliferation should be thought of now, rather than later. Currently, the U.S. government must approve of transfers of information that could have military use. This law is broad, far reaching, and inefficient. This doesn’t just apply to nanotech, but other technologies that could have potential military applications as well. New biotechnology, innovative drone blueprints, and anything else that could be used by the military falls under the purview.

The law seems tyrannical. It could prevent useful research from getting to places that need it. The military will err on the side of preventing information from getting through. If someone dies because they didn’t have access to biomedical research, nobody will blame the military. If they are killed by a U.S. military-designed weapon, someone could get fired. Overconservative policy would prevent useful international research, and stifle innovation in the long run. At least this would be the case if the law worked. It does not.

There is no decent enforcement mechanism-nothing to prevent actual data proliferation. Trying to prevent terrorists or other nations from getting this data by preventing information from leaving the country is like trying to prevent a computer hack by banning others from reviewing your source code. When you get hacked anyways, you’ll have no idea what hit you. Here’s Jeffrey Matsuura, in the book Nanotechnology Regulation and Policy Worldwide:

Indeed, a great deal of the information and technology associated with nanoscience that has already been transferred to individuals outside of the United States has most likely been transferred in violation of U.S. technology export control laws.

Stopping information flow is nearly impossible. Government defense policy should assume that enemies already have the information required to create most weapons – they do. The real stopgap is the lack of materials or skills to actually produce anything destructive. Nanotechnology will be different. If the enemy knows how to create these weapons, they will. The specific implications of nanotech are unknowns at this point, but we can look at 3D-printed guns for a fuzzy picture of the future. Anyone can create a weapon. Not a good weapon (yet), but improvements will be made, and useful ideas will spread.


The Less-Wrong Solution?

Information proliferation is one of the only scenarios where prevention doesn’t work; you need cure. Preventing access to information may be impossible, so administrations should approach terrorism directly. The focus should be on the physical acts of terrorism themselves, not the spread of information that could lead to terrorist acts. Cutting off physical access to raw materials is important. Cutting off virtual access to digital information is inconceivable. To move towards physical security rather than virtual security, defense agencies must focus on physical surveillance rather than virtual surveillance. Virtual surveillance is difficult, resource intensive, and has never worked. According to Bruce Schneier:

Whenever we learn about an NSA success, it invariably comes from targeted surveillance rather than from mass surveillance. One analysis showed that the FBI identifies potential terrorist plots from reports of suspicious activity, reports of plots, and investigations of other, unrelated, crimes.

He spends most of his time berating mass surveillance, but Schneier also mentions the success of targeted methods. Preventing the flow of data doesn’t work, but checking out high risk individuals may help. This leads us to another puzzle. How should sort through the pool of all humans to target high risk individuals without resorting to mass surveillance. One way is to target individuals that we have heard are dangerous. This is obviously insufficient, but it is a start. Umar AbdulMutallab, who was behind the failed Christmas terror attack, initially got on the authorities radar when his father sent warnings about him.

Authorities effectively ignored these warnings. Perhaps they didn’t consider him a threat for valid reasons. Perhaps they received many such warnings, most of which turn out to be false positives. In any case, they would have been better off spending more resources towards trying to sort through warnings than trying to sort through the entire internet.


Warnings come prefiltered by the warners. The internet and phone lines could have anything, but going by warnings can serve to shrink the pool by a significant amount. Some terrorists will fall through the cracks, but not as many as are falling though the cracks of mass surveillance. Digital surveillance in general may become less easy, but targeting a small number of high-risk individuals is simpler than targeting everyone all at once. For a more robust antiterror apparatus, I recommend improving physical surveillance. There is no magic bullet to prevent all attacks. There are only underutilized people.


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