Technology and Microterrorism

It was hard not to feel a sense of ambivalence over the speedy yet unsettling way the Boston Marathon bombers were caught. The efficiency of the manhunt was reassuring, but the chase also illustrated how the data we generate in our daily lives can get sucked up by the security apparatus. The Social Dead Zone sees the same surveillance technologies at work in the ghastly attack on the soldier in London. The blogger quotes J.G. Ballard's dark warning, “In a sense, we’re policing ourselves and that’s the ultimate police state.”

Perhaps. Policing oneself is also a good definition of ideology, where power isn't a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Rather, it is reproduced in our every action, from paying our taxes to holding the door open for someone. To my mind, the binary between the watcher and the watched hasn't collapsed completely because the binary was oversimplified to begin with.

After the Woolwich attack something called the Opensource Intelligence Unit is conducting "strategic horizon scanning," which is somebody anxiously watching Tweetdeck for signs of trouble. So one of those primly dressed officers in London’s Metropolitan Police Service could be reading your next tweet. But you are looking, too: a lot of people turned to Twitter for news about the pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers, myself included. 

Security services have turned to social media to search for threats because terrorism is changing. It's becoming more private. The Boston and Woolwich attacks were a kind of microterrorism motivated by something closer to old-fashioned alienation than the geopolitical belief systems of al-Qaeda.

These new terrorists use technology just like we do. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a prolific tweeter. Michael Adebolajo made sure he was on YouTube. By contract, Osama bin Ladin ruled his imaginary caliphate through a cassette tape recorder. The entire technology infrastructure of al- Qaeda could be powered by D cell batteries. Past and, quite possibly, future terrorists turn to social media because they're as tech savvy as any urbanite anywhere, but also because of the loneliness just beneath the surface of virtual interactions.

We should be concerned about security forces watching us on social media. Yet, increasingly, it would seem, the bad guys are leaving traces in big data. That's because they're becoming more like us.

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