Author: Surveillance technology is a double-edged sword

Lauren Florence

New advances in technology have significant potential to be manipulated and weaponized, posing a threat to personal information and safety, according to a visiting author who spoke about the future of violence. 

Benjamin Wittes, co-founder and editor-in-chief of national security blog Lawfare, said even as governments use surveillance techniques to ensure national security, private citizens and other countries will use those same surveillance techniques in ways that pose a threat to the U.S.

Wittes, who spoke Tuesday at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, said ordinary individuals can now pose a threat to the federal government and to other private citizens as a result of the exponential advances of new technologies, such as drones and robotics.

“The individual can have his own weapons-of-mass-destruction program. We haven’t seen a lot of this, but it’s totally doable,” Wittes said. “Everybody’s naked, everybody’s menacing, and everybody’s a critical feature of defense.”

Wittes said there’s never been a technology created that someone hasn’t tried to weaponize. Modern technologies increase people’s ability to do violence from a less accountable position.

A few years ago, 200 women were attacked and blackmailed when a man used malware to hack into their webcams and threatened to publicly distribute photos of them, Wittes said. He called this an act of “sextortion.”

“You, individually, can literally be attacked from anywhere. The power to attack is radically disseminating and proliferating,” Wittes said. “Think of the number of modes by which you can be attacked today and think how much exponentially greater that number is than it was 10 or 20 years ago.”

Mechanical engineering sophomore Christian Atayde said some 3-D printers are now encrypted to block certain things, such as weapons, from being printed, because of the potential for misuse.

“Giving people more technology, it will empower them, and they have the power to abuse this technology,” Atayde said. “Is it right for engineers to keep creating more technology over the fear that people will find a way to misuse it?”

Plan II senior Mark Jbeily said now that personal information on the Internet is widely available, he worries that people aren’t aware of how many ways their security can be at risk.

“We’ve learned how to conduct ourselves online, like, ‘Do I post this picture or not?’” Jbeily said. “Now, we have to think about bank security and other ways to protect ourselves.”