Nanotechnology and The Ultimate Terrorists

from the choice-of-weapons dept.

There has been much discussion on Nanodot recently about regulating nanotechnology. Some of the scarier scenarios of abuse come from the threat of nanoweapons unleashed by terrorists. Jessica Stern's book, The Ultimate Terrorists, offers a useful framework concerning the choice of weapons by terrorists, within which potential threats from terrorist use of nanoweapons can be considered. Bryan
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Choice of Weapons:
Nanotechnology and The Ultimate Terrorists

Some of the scarier scenarios of molecular nanotechnology come from the threat of nanoweapons unleashed by terrorists. Rather than accident or warfare, the biggest risks might come from "asymmetric threats;" irresponsible actors not bound by conventional norms, constraints or "rational" calculations; terrorists who might someday unleash catastrophic weapons of mass destruction based on nanotechnology.

Jessica Stern's book, The Ultimate Terrorists, does not specifically address nanotechnology, but does offer a useful framework for considering potential threats from terrorist use of nanoweapons. The essential argument focuses on the relative advantages of different weapons, suggesting that difficulty of access, complexity of use and uncertain impacts shape the choice of weapons. On these criteria, the risk of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, though real, looks far lower than depicted in alarmist scenarios.

Stern begins the book by portraying the possible impact of a small nuclear explosion on New York City. She then plods through definitions, though most of the analysis is not dependent on her particular definition of terrorism in terms of violence against noncombatants, aimed at intimidating or otherwise influencing an audience. She emphasizes the disproportionate dread and revulsion created by weapons that "poison" people, a fear that also applies to the potential for invisible submicroscopic nanoweapons.

Drawing on many examples from the ex-Soviet Union, U.S., Middle East, and elsewhere, she analyzes the substantial technical and political obstacles that dissuade most groups from using weapons of mass destruction, including shortage of specialized skills, difficulties in obtaining or making weapons, uncertainties in delivery, and risk of political backlash. She stresses that "terrorists have long been capable of more lethal acts of violence than they have actually committed," indicating that constraints affect their use of weapons. Nevertheless, the cases discussed in the book show how religious and ideological zealots, including Aum Shinrikiyo, have already demonstrated some capability and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction, and similar dangers seem likely to keep arising in the future.

A key conclusion is that "crude chemical and biological weapons are so easy to make that strategies for prevention are unlikely to be [completely] successful." A range of powerful weapons are already "within the reach" of extreme groups and individuals. The limitations of preventive strategies mean that much more should be done to prepare for responding to attacks and minimizing their consequences.

The final chapter reviews a range of measures that could be taken to improve capacity to prevent or respond to use of weapons of mass destruction, advocating better materials control systems, bigger budgets for relevant government agencies, and legal changes to facilitate monitoring and infiltration of potential terrorist groups, though Stern acknowledges dilemmas concerning civil liberties. Recommendations include tightening restrictions on access to dangerous biological materials, and adding an inspection regime to the Biological Weapons Convention.

Like others, Stern focuses on the immediate gains that might come from censoring access to information about dangerous technologies, while giving too little weight to the ways in which free speech helps identify vulnerabilities and develop solutions. In contrast to the relatively static analysis of Stern's book, the incomplete effectiveness of regulation in the dynamic context of advancing technologies makes it important not to stifle scientific advances that could help cope with dangers, and to avoid undermining the free discussion and sharing of information needed to cope with evolving threats.

Resolving the social and economic conflicts that contribute to terrorism is beyond the scope of Stern's book, but deserves consideration in any larger analysis. One may hope that nanotechnology might help spread prosperity and health that give more people a stake in avoiding violence. On the other hand, the social dislocations likely to result from continuing technical advance, capitalist "creative destruction," and bad governance around the world may well produce more, not fewer, disaffected people and groups who might engage in terrorism, while computers and telecommunication facilitate easier access to dangerous knowledge.

Considering the choice of weapons helps put nanoweapons into context. Bioweapons are and will continue to be a much bigger danger than currently hypothetical nanoweapons. The availability of cruder weapons of mass destruction using existing chemicals, viruses and bacteria means that strategies reliant only on controlling or "relinquishing" advanced biotechnology and nanotechnology would not eliminate present dangers, let alone completely forestall new threats. Defensive preparations would help, but the variety of threats and possibility of technological surprises means that absolute safety is impossible. Design guidelines in both biotechnology and nanotechnology could deliberately build in vulnerability to countermeasures, in ways that would be difficult though not impossible to evade. Design could help maintain and enhance the relative disadvantages that might induce terrorists to choose more conventional and better understood weapons.

Despite early fears, it has become increasingly clear that the peaceful use of nanotechnology could be made safe through prudent design and other measures which could eliminate the risk of "runaway replicators" accidentally converting the world into "gray goo." Safety in ordinary applications could be promoted through a panoply of conventional approaches such as engineering standards, regulatory codes, licensing, professional ethics, concern for reputation, insurance company requirements, legal liability and open source-type cooperation. As with any powerful technology, disregard for safe operating procedures might still risk industrial accidents, while pranks, vandalism and sabotage would still be threats, but there is much scope for designing the technology to make problems self-limiting, and to be resistant to abuse.

Military nanoweapons may take more frighteningly efficient forms, analogous to plagues, nerve gas and neutron bombs. However, there are reasons to hope that governments may avoid nanotech arms races and warfare, if they cooperate to apply strategies like those that have so far largely succeeded in preventing nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Such measures include arms control treaties, defense, deterrence, education, redefining norms about acceptable weapons, and deliberately increasing international economic and social interdependence. If such policies are put into practice, then they would also help control all but the most isolated and extreme terrorists.

Weapons using molecular nanotechnology are currently nonexistent. Compared to cruder chemical and biological weapons, the relative risk from nanoweapons seems likely to stay low for a long time. As the technology develops, adequate attention to preventive design and defense could help discourage terrorists from choosing to acquire or use nanoweapons.

reviewed by Bryan Bruns

Jessica Stern 1999 The Ultimate Terrorists
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

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