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From 3D-printed guns to weaponized hobby drones, open technologies pose sinister threats

Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists

Audrey Kurth Cronin
Oxford University Press
440 pp.
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At first glance, Power to the People by Audrey Kurth Cronin might be just another entry in a long line of works devoted to technological fearmongering and dire threat inflation (1, 2). Cronin’s warning about technological diffusion and its likely impact on terrorism, however, should not be classified alongside those earlier contributions. Rather than broadly faulting emergent lethal technologies, she makes a very focused and compelling case for attending to the threats posed by open-source “off-the-shelf” technologies that are affordable and easily operated, and are easily weaponized (3D-printed guns and the arming of inexpensive hobby drones are two relevant examples).

Cronin invites readers to consider specific case studies in which similar emergence, diffusion, and affordability of lethal technology fomented and enabled unanticipated terrorist activity. Her underlying framework is a theory of technological development and innovation—referred to as lethal empowerment theory—that is double-edged. New weapons (or weaponizable) technology, she argues, often enables greater force projection in the exercise of political power by militaries of conventional nation-states, but they simultaneously offer new avenues for violent political disruption by nonstate actors and organizations. The latter groups often outstrip military bureaucracies in terms of ingenuity and speed of innovation.

The first of Cronin’s two principal historical examples is Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite. Dynamite was designed for use in deep-shaft mining and building transportation infrastructure. Accordingly, it was easily obtained, and its sale and distribution were lightly regulated (if at all) in most countries other than Great Britain until after World War I.

Despite the known dangers associated with transporting and using dynamite, it was in huge demand worldwide during the height of the Industrial Revolution. By the end of the 19th century, clever anarchists in Russia and France and members of the Irish Republican Army began using it to great effect, creating small, transportable explosive devices that could be remotely detonated in public places.

The second example Cronin considers is the AK-47 assault rifle, invented by Soviet army sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov at the dawn of the Cold War. Ridiculed by technological purists for its clunky inaccuracy, the AK-47 nonetheless proved inexpensive, lightweight, easy for untrained troops to operate, and—perhaps most important—extremely durable in the field. As a result, it became the weapon of choice for ragtag armies intent on overthrowing established authorities or ushering in new regimes throughout the hotly contested developing nations of the postcolonial world.

In both of these historical cases (and in many other smaller examples for which Cronin provides less comprehensive accounts), the violent, disruptive innovation by anarchists, terrorists, and revolutionaries took place against a backdrop of keen interest by ordinary citizens in the prospects of applied scientific advances. This helped foster widespread open access to the latest lethal technologies that were easily adaptable to the purposes of violent dissidents.

Against this grim backdrop, Cronin turns to her book’s central objective of examining the variety of sinister threats posed by increasingly open access to emerging lethal or potentially lethal technologies. She explores the perverse and malevolent uses of smartphones, robotics, social media, and viral “fake news”; of genetic engineering; and especially of the built-in vulnerabilities afforded by the Internet of Things.

Cronin gives serious consideration to the chilling potential misuse of artificial intelligence (AI), envisioning, for example, the hacking of a state-owned, AI-driven unmanned aerial vehicle for the purpose of shooting down a commercial aircraft (a scenario initially put forward by Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking). Dissidents might also seek to disrupt autonomous passenger vehicles in large cities, easily causing chaos and casualties.

In a fitting confirmation of her thesis, shortly after Cronin’s book went to press, Kyle Mizokami reported in Popular Mechanics on the release of the KUB-BLA, a small, affordable suicide drone created by the Russian-based Kalashnikov company that can be armed with up to 3 pounds of explosives (3). I fear we may be in for a most unpleasant ride.

References and Notes:
1. R. Sparrow, J. Appl. Philos. 24, 62 (2007).
2. R. A. Clarke, R. K. Knake, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It (HarperCollins, 2010).
3. K. Mizokami, “Kalashnikov is getting into the business of self-destructing drones,” Popular Mechanics, 20 February 2019.

About the author

The reviewer is professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD 21402, USA.