Skip to main content

How technology makes us vulnerable

By Marc Goodman, Special to CNN
July 29, 2012 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
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
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
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
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
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?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
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"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
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
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
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
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
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.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
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
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
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.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
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.