The dual-use dilemma

Every object is potentially “dual-use;” it all depends on how it’s employed.
As our technology has developed, so have its potential uses for both good and evil. That has long presented us with the conundrum of controlling these technologies.
I remember a debate in the 1980s over “batch mixers”—large stirrers used to combine ingredients in a mixing bowl. I’d read endless reports on these, but I’d never laid eyes on them until one evening when a pizzeria owner proudly showed me his kitchen—and there sat a batch-mixer, about 10 times the size of an otherwise identical home kitchen appliance. He used it to mix pizza dough. But the Pentagon in those days wanted to control their export because batch mixers could be used to stir solid rocket fuel.
Batch mixers could be used to feed us—or to blow us up.

Modern times
The latest controversy over a dual-use technology concerns geographic information systems (GIS), which Anthony Kimery covers in this edition of HSToday.
GIS and the platforms that supply it, notably Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, are amazing tools. A user can drill down to see overhead views of individual houses and lots. Now, street-level views are also available.
This has wonderful applications in the civil realm, whether for selling real estate, finding a restaurant or just getting directions.
It has important applications in emergency response. In last month’s “Frontlines” column, Tony Vasquez, a 28-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department, told how building owners provided the department with detailed digital building information. That kind of data can make all the difference when rescuers need to enter a building or respond to a natural disaster.
In this month’s “Frontlines,” author Jeffrey Goldman explains how we can use geospatial intelligence, combined with other information, to make key predictions. This can be a critical tool in combating terrorism. In “IT Today” Hank Hogan examines the technical specifics of the new platforms.
Also this month, in the “Leadership Profile,” Rob Pinkerton of Adobe Systems explains how new products like digital maps can be infused with rich amounts of information that can be retrieved with the click of a mouse.
Yet in this same issue, Anthony Kimery and John Bumgarner provide a chilling warning of how these same technologies can—and already are—being used by terrorists to our detriment.
This is not the first time that geospatial information has had potentially explosive consequences.
It’s not widely known, but there was a time when maps of the world were considered state secrets. Christopher Columbus is supposed to have had a top-secret globe that gave him the confidence to sail west in search of the Indies. As explorers filled in the outlines of the Americas, the results of their explorations were often classified by their sponsoring countries.
More recently, countries have issued maps with features left blank, or, in the case of the Soviet Union, features were deliberately rendered inaccurate to hide sensitive facilities.

No easy answers
There is no simple answer to the difficulties presented by dual-use technologies. Every case is unique, and each new technology presents new dilemmas.
When the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, the technologies both sides sought were nearly identical, rather exotic and relatively easily controlled. But in protecting the homeland today, the problem is much more difficult. Our open societies are the source of our strength—and a buffet of weapons determined terrorists can use against us. It’s the old dual-use dilemma: The same aircraft that shuttled passengers between cities also served as a missile against an urban target.
When it comes to geospatial intelligence, clearly some controls and constraints are in order and necessary. But I would argue that these restrictions should be as minimal and temporary as possible.
There’s no doubt that in some very specific places geospatial intelligence would aid terrorism, but I like to believe that the emergency response and commercial capabilities conferred by this widely available technology outweigh the risks. I would hate to see us publishing deliberately inaccurate information the way the Soviets did.
I have to believe that our robustness as a society and an economy are our greatest long-term weapons against the forces of terror and tyranny that seek to overthrow us. Anything that contributes to greater ease of trade and strengthens public understanding makes us stronger.
We’re in a long war of ideas. I would like to believe that openness and knowledge are, ultimately, stronger weapons than terror and fear.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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