Can the Web save us from terrorism?

Intended for communication and information-sharing in the 1980s, Internet service blossomed into a worldwide educational and entertainment phenomenon in the 1990s. The apex of information technology (IT) created a new world, a “cyberworld.”

In the 1990s, the cyberworld mirrored reality. Internet economies, jobs, businesses, entertainment and even personal dating became as easy and careless as going to the movies or shopping at the mall.

After Sept. 11, however, fears of infrastructure breakdown, compromised national security and simple identity theft spread across American soil. Some experts theorized that a cyberassault could cripple the U.S. economy even worse than the physical assault of Sept. 11.

In response, American legislators introduced a color-coded threat-level system, the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security. Security and protection of America’s IT became a top priority. Legislators believed increased security would protect the United States, while American society was wondering who to be scared of next.

Robert Latham’s compilation of essays, Bombs and Bandwidth, gives an eyebrow-raising interpretation of society’s role in the relationship between security and IT before and after Sept. 11, 2001. Readers will find the bulk of this book interesting and insightful, offering instructive perspectives on the price and applications of security and IT.

A few essays get lost in technicalities and long-winded rants, but the majority makes for an attractive modern look at various societies’ orchestration of security using information technology.

Latham claims that transformations in society, not necessarily military, will shape the relationship. His main points: protection of society’s institutions and resources is a fundamental goal of security; social groups are the predominant users of IT; IT-related innovations (video games, movies) can inspire militaries; and society is the source of ethical and political questions about security.

To start, the book delves into the chilling, destructive possibilities caused by “cyber warfare” and into the U.S. war on terrorism. The rest contains commentary on privacy and surveillance, terrorist networks and case studies of nation-state militaries versus small IT-savvy groups.

A recurring message is that big government and big guns do not guarantee right answers. Author Rafal Rohozinski points to the Russian military’s failed attempt to quell the cell-phone use of Chechen rebels. Essayist Carolyn Nordstrom investigates the fluidity of African smugglers using satellite-linked laptops.

Certain authors also point to the peace-spreading applications of IT in oppressive nation-states and interracial conflicts. Reading between the lines, Bombs and Bandwidth seems to suggest enhanced IT and communication structures will lead to greater peace and security.

Book reviewed:
Bombs and Bandwidth: The Emerging Relationship Between Information Technology and Security
Edited by Robert Latham
326 pages; $17.95
The New Press, 2003