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
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.