Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Bloody Math of Lone Maniacs

“Moore’s Law of Mad Science: Every eighteen months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.”-Eliezer Yudkowsky

For better or worse, we live in an age of technological empowerment. Social media topples regimes, crowdfunding raises millions, and information (and dis/misinformation) campaigns can travel the world at the speed of light. So what happens when a single depraved individual could produce a weapon of mass destruction in their basement? 

The 'lone nutcase' is often a feared figure in certain law enforcement or intelligence circles. Unlike gangs, terrorist groups, or rival spies, solitary individuals can slip through the cracks far more easily than a terror cell. A spree killer might need only a few incidents to set them on their bloody rampage. Laws on the tools they use (such as firearms, explosive chemicals, etc.) can offer little defense in many circumstances. An automatic firearm might be legally (or illegally) acquired. A bomb could be made of legal, common chemicals. And even if firearms and explosives are unavailable, there's always knives and stabbing weapons. While melee weapons offer less "efficiency" in mass murder than a machine gun or bomb, the sad reality is regardless of the grim numbers, there are likely several innocents dead.

History offers some examples of noteworthy lone maniacs, but I do not want to name those idiots or give them any more attention than I have to. However, I will discuss a few categories of lone morons. I will not cover small groups or political figures in detail, as they had staff and others with them. The 9/11 hijackers, for instance, were a small group with substantial resources behind them (in the form of their terrorist handlers and leaders, etc.). Obama's due process free hit list for US citizens and others needs people to actually compile the lists and deploy the Predator drones, as well.

The spree killings of the past few decades have included a number of high profile shooting sprees. While these have been conducted with firearms of varying legality, the general trend is so pathetic moron decides to mow down innocents. In the late 90s, a shooting in Scotland was believed to have triggered copycat attacks in Australia and New Zealand. The US suffered a spate of school shootings in the same period. These, however, were not the first attacks of their kind.

A previous mass shooting in the USA in 1966 actually spurred the development of SWAT teams, and disproved the idea that individuals were safe in public. This, however, was neither the first public massacre nor school attack that occurred in the 20th century. There was the Bath School Disaster, where a madman used explosives to murder dozens of schoolchildren and teachers.

Firearms and explosives are fairly old technologies, having been known to humankind for almost 1000 years. Laws against guns and explosives may increase the difficulty of acquiring or building one, but it's unlikely to totally defend against every possible permutation of explosive device or firearm out there. We've built such weapons for centuries, and the main limit on casualties is how many people can be gathered into range before such a weapon is deployed. This is why blowing up a plane or sinking a ship may cause more death than a single bomb or shooting spree. Some systems are innately "better" at such a task than others, which is why identifying them may be key. A concealed submachinegun or hand grenade may hit more people in a crowd than a flintlock musket, after all.

Likewise, early forms of chemical and biological warfare have been known for centuries, yet it was the 20th century that brought these technologies to horrid maturity. At first, they required a major government and industrial investment. Many of WW1's chemical weapons required factories to churn them out, so the 'lunatic in a basement' scenario would be mostly nonviable with period technology. World War II, however, saw a technology grow to maturity that could self replicate, spreading itself to a target population,. That technology was biological warfare, pioneered by the likes of Imperial Japan's brutal Unit 731 and later, the postwar governments of the US and Soviet Union. 

Of course, the atom bomb became the most feared weapon after the war (and rightly so), but production of nuclear weapons was capital-intensive. They became the Atomic 'A' of the ABCs of WMD (with Biological and Chemical following afterwards). Even maintaining stockpiles of nukes for deterrence is an expensive, complex endeavor. Materials, infrastructure, and production require a significant government investment, even with modern technology. Even though the technology dates from 70 years ago, production of viable nukes by lone individuals is still impossible and will be, given how uranium and plutonium can be tracked, to say nothing of radiation detectors and Geiger counters being used to easily sniff one out. I'm sure the War on Terror inspired the design of new generations of nuke-sniffers and similar devices, as no self respecting part of the American military industrial complex would want to miss a market like that.

With atomic weapons removed, how about biological and chemical weapons? Chemical weapons still require major investments in producing any significant amounts of it. The Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, tried releasing sarin gas in Tokyo subways, but dispersion of a gas-based chemical weapon and ventilation hindered them. If it was a lone maniac (as opposed to a doomsday cult with ample funding), they would not have been able to produce even the relatively small amount they did for the 1995 attack.

What I am personally the most concerned with are biological weapons. The cost of doing genetic engineering in one's basement continues to drop. Basement biohackers might today focus on things like glow in the dark algae, but as the technology becomes more user friendly and widespread, then things get interesting. I doubt, however, total bans or requiring registration to be a basement biologist would be very effective. Totally banning anything means legitimate users (DIY biologists who could be collaborating on say, a cure to a bad guy's designer disease), will have to jump through more hoops while the maniac has none. Modern firearms have technical bottlenecks in ammunition supply and all the laws concerning ammo sales, but I imagine bio-gear to have even less of such bottlenecks. Like unregistered guns and makeshift meth labs, unregistered bio-labs could be started with even less capital and staffed with an ever-smaller number of staff. I believe basement bio-weapons offer the greatest potential for "single maniac abuse," save if someone develops some kind of even worse nanobots or something of the sort.

Also, I'd like to cover cyber-weapons. I know cyber-attacks have gotten press lately, but a 'cyberattack' is a fancy way of saying computer-enabled, remote sabotage. The key threat there is infrastructure disruption. Power grids could be knocked offline, key systems could have backdoors installed or passwords stolen, and so on. Recent cyber-attacks have targeted Iran's nuclear program and the Gulf oil industry. Any deaths from there would be an effect of infrastructure disruption rather than a primary goal. Interestingly, the US designed Flame and Stuxnet, having been deployed into the "wild," could now have their own code modified and deployed back at them by anyone with computer programming knowledge. There's also the related issue of hijacking platforms. Imagine a bad guy hacking a Predator drone (or a bunch of them) and raising hell with them, for instance.

On a related note, an electromagnetic weapon, such as an EMP bomb or HERF (High Energy Radio Frequency) device could disrupt power grids or supply to some major area, but smart and proper grounding of hardware could hinder attempts at replication. So, it's really a one trick pony, since it will be hard to repeat the trick after someone pulls it off successfully.

That brings me to my final point: disruption. I believe the most dangerous attacks in the future will integrate multiple vectors of attack. A bomb or IED might spread shrapnel loaded with a designer disease. A cyber-attack could knock out power and strand people somewhere while a terrorist group (or lone maniac) goes on a shooting spree. If the individual is suicidal, they may simply care on taking as many people as possible down with them. If they wish to fight another day, they could aim to cause as much chaos as possible. This means they drive up operational costs through economic damage and spending on safeguards. A terrorist seeking to cause disruption might not try to raise a body count, but prices of essentials. Imagine they spread a disease that kills off crops for stable foods (the monoculture and lack of genetic diversity in today's factory farms would mean they'd have an easier job of this). The result is essential foods go up in price, perhaps out of the affordability range of poor people (who are the majority in much of the developing world). Rising food prices, after all, helped start the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, and Arab Spring.

So, how to counter all of this potential for abuse and chaos? Government officials could insist they need to observe all your communications and institute total surveillance. However, this is unlikely to work, as catching every laptop full of cyber-weapon malware or basement bioweapons lab is statistically improbable. Another idea is to improve people. People with more freedom, full bellies, stable income, and social involvement are less likely to become radicalized. If one feels nothing left to lose, then desperation could easily lead towards violence. The feelings of powerlessness, lack of social meaningful connections like friends/family/etc. (a social safety net unto itself), and no conventional social safety net could easily give rise to violence. The last approach is a systems design, resilient infrastructure and systems. A decentralized system that can take many small disruptions can survive and thrive when the centralized big ones fail.

There is also a final realization: Most people have a survival instinct and desire to help each other. A partnership between political institutions and various communities (DIY biologists and open source programmers, for instance) can muster more resources than most governments can. I believe that a decentralized network of citizens with resilient infrastructure is a far better safeguard than over-relying on a professional protector caste. The professionals have their place, but they may not be sufficient for everything. This is why I believe a multi-layered net is the best counter to solitary maniacs. If everyone is empowered, then a single maniac cannot stand against the many.

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