Technology in wartime

War changes everything, including technology. In the United States we are roughly six years into what the Bush Administration calls the “war on terror,” and what hundreds of thousands of soldiers know as the occupation of Iraq. Gizmos that a decade ago would have been viewed entirely as communications tools and toys are now potential surveillance and killing machines.

Don’t believe me? Consider how much the web has changed. Naively referred to 10 years ago by Bill Clinton and Co. as the friendly, welcoming “information superhighway,” the web is now the NSA’s surveillance playground. Last year, a whistleblower at AT&T revealed that every bit of internet traffic routed by AT&T was also being routed through an NSA surveillance system. Millions of innocent people’s private internet activities, including online purchases and e-mail, were being watched without warrants.

Cuddly consumer robots epitomized by Sony’s Aibo robot dog have changed, too.
iRobot, the U.S. company that makes those adorable Roomba vacuum robots, just announced a huge deal with the military to make reconnaissance and killing robots called PackBots for use in combat zones. Already, 50 PackBots have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the ground versions of unmanned aerial vehicles, remote-controlled spy planes that can also shoot weapons.

Tech-security expert Bruce Schneier describes technology as having “dual uses”: one for peacetime, and one for war. The Wii video game console, for example, is great for translating physical movements into movements on screen. That makes Wii great for party games where you swing your arms to move dancing penguins on the screen. It also makes a great interface for remote-controlled guns in a combat robot. Just move your arm to aim.

In a time of war, you can’t enjoy a party game without thinking about how your game console could be used to kill people. I realize that sounds melodramatic, but looked at pragmatically it’s quite simply true.

Once you realize that every form of technology has a dual use, it becomes much easier to argue for ways of limiting the uses that aren’t ethical or legal. Consider that a roboticized anti-aircraft cannon (similar to the PackBot) turned on its operators during a field exercise in South Africa last October, killing nine people before it ran out of ammo. The software error that led this robot to slaughter friendly soldiers is no different from
errors that make your Roomba crash. What do we draw from this analogy? Perhaps robots that are perfectly legal as vacuums should be illegal on the battlefield? Perhaps no weapon should ever be completely autonomous like the Roomba is?

Questions like these led me and my colleagues at Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) to put together a conference at Stanford University on the topic of technology in wartime, focusing especially on ethics and the law. Coming up January 26, the conference will be a day packed with talks and panels about everything from dual-use technology (Bruce Schneier will be a keynote) to what happens when robots commit war crimes. We’ll also hear from people who are appropriating military technologies for human-rights causes: The very technologies that let military spies hide online also help human rights workers and dissidents hide online while still getting their subversive messages out.

We’ll also have a panel on so-called cyberterrorism, or destructive hacks aimed at taking down a nation’s tech infrastructure. But should fears of cyberterror lead to total government surveillance of the internet? Cindy Cohn, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal director, will talk about how the NSA used AT&T to spy on US citizens, and the suit EFF has brought against AT&T for violating its customers’ privacy rights.

If you want to find out how to change the way militaries are appropriating consumer tech, or just want to learn more about how war is changing the way we use technology, come out to Stanford on January 26 for the conference. It’s open to the public, and you can register at The cost of admission gets a you free lunch and a T-shirt, as well as a chance to talk to some of the smartest people in the field. See you there!

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wants smart defense to replace buggy offense.

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