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Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation Is Arming Tomorrow's Terrorists

Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation Is Arming Tomorrow's Terrorists by Audrey Kurth Cronin. Oxford University Press, 2020, 440 pp.

Power to the People is a word to the wise: virtually any new form of technology can be a double-edged sword. Even the most harmless technology can become harmful in the hands of adversaries. Professor Audrey Cronin illustrates this principle in her new book, a detailed historical account, technology overview, and warning siren all at once. Professor Cronin joined the faculty of the School of International Service at American University in August 2016, where she is the founding director of the Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology.

As a foundation to her argument, Professor Cronin states that it is easier than ever to access advanced technologies “capable of inflicting death and mayhem.” Her thesis is this: unless we better understand the rapidly developing threats, governments will be increasingly unable to combat them. To support her argument, roughly half of her book explores how individuals and groups use emerging technologies to wreak havoc and engage in political violence, while the other half predicts future developments and how to counteract adversaries.

Innovative technologies are at the book’s core. Such technologies disrupt industries and facilitate access to weapons, making it easier for civilians to harm governments. Professor Cronin defines “disruptive” technologies by their characteristics: accessible, cheap, simple to use, transportable, concealable, and no longer cutting-edge. They give greater power to individuals and groups not because they are superior to the high-end technologies used by governments but because they help mobilize individuals, extend their reach, and represent unprecedented command and control abilities.

Professor Cronin uses two examples to highlight her theory: dynamite and the Kalashnikov assault rifle (AK-47). The invention of dynamite was a breakthrough in chemistry, but it also enabled an outbreak of po­litically motivated bombings in the nineteenth century. While dynamite was invented as a tool for demolition in construction projects, it was soon repurposed as a weapon of anarchists and non-state actors, shaking the foundation of several of Europe’s regimes and leading to the outbreak of the First World War. The global wave of terrorism that dynamite unleashed involved bombing incidents in 52 countries.

Similarly, the AK-47 facilitated the second global wave of political violence, becoming the weapon of choice of insurgents, terrorists, “freedom fighters,” organized crime groups, and lone mass shooters. The AK-47 and its derivatives have killed millions, facilitated the overthrow of governments, turned the tide in wars, and leveled the field for insurgents fighting large-scale conventional armies. What accounts for the spread of the AK-47? There are several reasons. It was designed for peasants with no prior military training. It was shorter and lighter than comparable rifles. Its parts were machine produced and interchangeable, and conscripts could learn how to assemble and disassemble it quickly. In short, the gun was ideal for lightly armed, highly mobile troops traveling long distances who needed a highly reliable firearm.

Professor Cronin’s thesis relies on analogizing dynamite and the AK-47 to a cluster of emerging technologies. She states that social media, drones, smartphones, and 3D printing are today’s double-edged swords. The internet, for example, can be misappropriated to facilitate terrorist mobilization. Social media and video channels have been used, in part, in the same way pamphlets, books, speeches, and newspapers were used by anarchists. “Boundless interactivity” permits hostile groups on the other side of the world to contact potential converts in the US. Chat rooms and text messages, once envisioned for connecting families and friends, can now connect hostiles with the defenseless.

Yet it is a significant leap to say that dynamite and the AK-47—both inherently lethal inventions—were radically repurposed to wreak havoc, and thus, we should also proceed cautiously with 3D printing, social media, and civilian drones. After all, dynamite’s raison d’ĂȘtre was its blasting power, leveling mountains to lay railroad track. The AK-47’s sole purpose is to terrorize and kill as efficiently as possible. Professor Cronin states that neither Alfred Nobel (the inventor of dynamite) nor Mikhail Kalashnikov anticipated how their inventions would be used for violence, in much the same way that the creators of the internet, social media, and other emerging technologies have not foreseen the nefarious uses for their products. However, it defies belief to claim that the inventors of a volatile explosive substance and an assault rifle could not have anticipated how their inventions could be repurposed for violence—all the more because once those inventions are released to the world, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

The fact that hostile parties have repurposed the internet and social media is unsurprising. The degree of acces­sibility, convenience, simplicity, and global reach appeal to adversaries trying to push their propaganda. But new means of communication will always be put to evil uses; after all, they are channels for communication. The phone, letter, and telegram could all signal malevolent messages in the past. The difference today is that the inventors of modern technology should see it coming and are accountable to users to protect against viruses and misuses of software (thus regular updates and patches to fix problems and ban users).

Unfortunately, Power to the People loses a lot of steam in the final three chapters. Professor Cronin writes at length about the pace of technological advancement, Moore’s Law, and microchips. Aside from a tangential relation to technology in the grand sense, it is unclear how this background is relevant to any part of her thesis. The book seems to lose more and more focus as it nears its final pages. That can be easily forgiven by a casual reader, but for a researcher or area expert, digressions and lack of focus dilute the author’s core message. The book would be greatly improved by cutting fluff and adding actionable recommendations.

Still, Power to the People will please those with an interest in American history, the incredible lives of Messrs. Nobel and Kalashnikov, and the inventive methods America’s enemies use to subvert our national security. The repackaging of benign technology in the hands of enemies deserves careful study, and there may be no better book on this topic than Power to the People.

Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF   



The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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