2004 June 03 Thursday
Radioactive Dirty Bomb Risk Seen As Growing

The International Atomic Energy Agency claims that the risk of terrorist use of radioactive dirty bombs is growing.

The IAEA's records, which it has released to New Scientist, show a dramatic rise in the level of smuggling of radiological materials, defined as radioactive sources that could be used in dirty bombs but not nuclear bombs.

In 1996 there were just eight of these incidents but last year there were 51.

As more of the world industrlalizes the use of highly radioactive materials such as cobalt-60 for medical purposes will increase and hence there will be radioactive material at more sites around the globe and greater chances for diversion of the material for nefarious purposes. Though in the longer run advances in biotechnology ought to produce better treatments and medical tests that do not involve the use of toxic radiation. For example, a recent study found that a test for a blood protein could be used to eliminate need for as much as 60% of lung angiogram CT scans.

By Randall Parker    2004 June 03 02:26 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2003 October 07 Tuesday
MIT Group Creates Cheap Small HexFlex Nanomanipulator

Nanotech will get steadily cheaper and smaller.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Assembling a machine sounds straightforward, but what if the components of that machine are nanoscopic? Similarly, bringing together the ends of two cables is simple unless those cables have a core diameter many times smaller than a human hair, as is the case with fiber optics.

Although there are devices on the market with similar credentials, they are expensive and have inherent limitations. Using a fundamentally new design, an MIT team has invented the HexFlex Nanomanipulator that's not only inexpensive but performs better in many ways than its competitors.

The HexFlex, developed by MIT inventors led by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Martin Culpepper, has won a 2003 R&D 100 Award. The awards honor the 100 most technologically significant new products and processes, as determined by the editors of R&D magazine and more than 50 experts.

"A traditional nanomanipulator is the size of a bread box and costs more than a new SUV," Culpepper said. The MIT device is three to four inches tall by six inches in diameter "and could be manufactured for about $3,000."

The principal component of the HexFlex is a flat, six-pronged "star" of aluminum. Three of those prongs are mounted on an aluminum base. The other three are actually tabs that can be moved in six different directions thanks to a system of magnet-coil actuators. The device's name reflects that six-axis capability (hex) and compliant (flex) structure.

This device is noteworthy because it is small and cheap. What the future will bring is nanomanipulators that are more capable as well. This one sounds like more of a research tool. But picture one capable of building very complex and useful devices. There is considerable danger in that capability. Want to prevent a country or a terrorist group from getting, say, centrifuges that can purify uranium? If they can get a device that will build such centrifuges then it does no good to control the sale of uranium enrichment centrifuges made by known reputable makers.

The great thing about nanotechnology is that it is going to be small and cheap. The terrible thing about nanotechnology is that it is going to be small and cheap. If nanotechnology was going to require large economies of scale to make it possible to build a nanoassembler device it would be easier to try to prevent really dangerous products from making it into the hands of terrorists. But at least some nanotech manufacturing devices are going to be very small and cheap. Thirty years or forty years from now how to prevent a terrorist from getting ahold of a nanotech assembler that can build any kind of virus or bacteria that is desired? If there is an answer to that question it is not obvious.

By Randall Parker    2003 October 07 01:30 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2003 September 13 Saturday
When A Single Terrorist Will Be Able To Kill Enormous Numbers

Arnold Kling is looking toward that future day when a single person will be able to cause massive numbers of deaths.

But to me, the interesting question is this: assume you can make state-sponsored terrorism extinct. Then what kind of terrorism will survive?

I think that survivors will be splinter groups, rogue operations, and individuals. As of now, that is less of a threat than a large network. But the power of the individual keeps increasing as technology increases. Eventually, we are going to have to develop the capability to identify and thwart a lone terrorist with no connections to anyone.

A lot of civil libertarians see an increasing danger from technological advances that enable greater surveillance of people by their governments. What they fail to address is the problem that Arnold Kling alludes to: the danger from the lone individual who will be able to use advances in technology to kill increasingly larger numbers of people in a single act.

As I've argued in the past, a basic question about technological advances in the future is whether technological advances will favor the defensive or the offensive under scenarios where the attackers are small groups of people or individuals.

The basic question that any debate about the future dangers of technology has to answer is whether the net effect of likely technological advances in the 21st century will favor the offensive or the defensive. Optimists assume that the kinds of dangers generated by technological advances be offset by even greater abilities to create systems to protect us from these dangers. But that assumption can not be proven and there are very plausible arguments against it.

In his excellent 1984 book The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society Since A.D. 1000 historian William H. McNeill explored the history of technological changes as they affected the ability to conduct offensive and defensive operations. At different periods of history a succession of technological advances shifted the balance between offensive and defensive and in the process changed the nature of warfare and the structure of societies. In the 21st century we are facing technological changes that will dwarf in their effects all previous technological changes put together. It is worth asking whether the coming technological advances will have a net effect of making civilization easier or harder to defend. My own view is that these advances will make civilization harder to defend.

If we are going to be faced with growing threats from terrorism due to technological advances that make it easier to launch terrorist attacks of enormous lethality is there anything we can do about it? As I see it there are only about two major counters that can be used to sustain a defense in the long run:

  • A massive worldwide surveillance society. Sensors would be deployed throughout the world to watch for dangerous actions by individuals.
  • Reengineer human minds to make humans less dangerous.

Either offensive actions have to be watched for at the individual level just as governments now watch each other or we have to change human motives using biotech so that there will be no outliers who have a desire to kill large numbers of people.

Such extreme measures are neither necessary or possible today. Rather less extreme measures (e.g. the overthrow of the North Korean regime) can buy us a couple of decades of delay before the risk becomes much greater. But eventually technological advances will make it too easy for lone individuals or small groups to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction.

By Randall Parker    2003 September 13 02:04 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (47)
2003 July 13 Sunday
Infrastructure Database Project Seen As National Security Risk

George Mason University geography Ph.D. candidate Scott Gorman and assistant professor research Laurie Schintler have created a computer database that maps the entire United States telecommunications network overlaid with all major industries.

He can click on a bank in Manhattan and see who has communication lines running into it and where. He can zoom in on Baltimore and find the choke point for trucking warehouses. He can drill into a cable trench between Kansas and Colorado and determine how to create the most havoc with a hedge clipper. Using mathematical formulas, he probes for critical links, trying to answer the question: "If I were Osama bin Laden, where would I want to attack?" In the background, he plays the Beastie Boys.

I hope they are encrypting their data.

Schintler sees this work as necessary to identifying vulnerabilities for defensive purposes.

"Only by trying to understand critical infrastructure can we begin to formulate plans and policies designed to mitigate the effects that could occur as the result of a targeted physical and/or cyber attack on infrastructure in the developed world," wrote Schintler in an August, 2002 CIP Report article. "And we need understand our complex infrastructure even better than the enemy."

One problem here is that this sort of data needs to be collected in order to identify vulnerabilities for defensive purposes. But by collecting it the data becomes vulnerable to being stolen by the Bad Guys. Obviously, security precautions can be taken to make the data more difficult to steal. The Washington Post article mentions that the researchers are using some physical security devices to make it hard for anyone to get to their computers. But my guess is those devices could be defeated by sufficiently sophisticated thieves. Hence my hope that they are encrypting their data.

But there is a longer run problem here that probably can not be solved: it will become increasingly easy for anyone to collect the information that Gorman and Schintler have collected. Gorman collected much of his information using the internet. Well, companies and government agencies can remove some information from their web sites. But are electronic map databases going to remove the location information for companies? Also, some of the information ends up being fairly accessible because construction companies and government agencies have to know where it is not safe to dig. A large number of people need fairly easy access to the information.

There is also the separate question of whether important vulnerabilities, once identified, will be dealt with. Redundant systems cost money. Parallel fiber optiic cables and switching facilities would have to be built. Companies compete with each other and need to keep their costs low. Who is going to have sufficient incentive to build in the amount of redundancy that would effectively protect against terrorist attacks? Also, can it even be done? If one switching station is too important and two more get built then the terrorists have to blow up 3 buildings rather than 1 building. Well, an organization that can get the material together to make one van into a bomb the total effort needed to scale up to make 3 bomb vehicles will probably less than 3 times as much as to make and deliver one of them.

It might make more sense to approach the problem by developing better capabilities for doing really rapid repair. Mobile fiber optic switching equipment that could be transported in less than a day to anywhere in the country to be installed to replace destroyed facilities might make more sense than redundant fully installed equipment. Also, pre-installed hooks across major bridges and even on the sides of some buildings could be used to quickly extend a fiber optic cable into a place like Manhattan if major chunks of existing cables were cut.

By Randall Parker    2003 July 13 12:58 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2002 October 21 Monday
Detect Nukes Smuggled Into Cities?

Writing in Wired Steven Johnson has written an article about efforts underway to detect nuclear weapons in vehicles being driven into cities:

Then there's the more pressing issue: How easy would it be to subvert the network? After the scanning demo in Massachusetts, I sit down in a conference room with Callerame, and he walks me through the physics of concealment. High atomic-weight materials like lead can block gamma radiation, but the large quantities of lead that would be needed would show up on other scanning devices. Callerame's solution is to combine radiation sensors with advanced X-ray technologies, like the backscatter system that produced the startling image of the Mercedes. "I still think you're going to have to X-ray these things," Callerame says. "If you run only a radiation detector and somebody shields their source well enough, you may not pick it up. On the other hand, if you're simultaneously doing X-ray imaging, you'll see this big blob in the middle of the cargo, which would be a dead giveaway of something being clandestinely brought in." He shows me printouts of scans done at a demo in Washington, where they concealed the radioactive material in a container of lead the size of a bowling ball. In the image, the lead container pops out immediately, a bright-white circular shape in the middle of translucent grays. "Now, I should mention, even though we wrapped the cesium in this lead casing, we still managed to pick up the gamma radiation. It's just easier when you do the two in combination."

But a ship carrying a nuke could make it into a harbor and blow up before its cargo was scanned.

By Randall Parker    2002 October 21 12:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
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