The menace in the machine

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MUNICH: The Munich Security Conference is an annual catalog of horrors. But the most ominous discussion last weekend wasn’t about Islamic State terrorism but a new generation of weapons — such as killer robots and malignly programmed “smart” appliances that could be deployed in a future conflict.

Behind the main events at the annual discussion of foreign and defense policy here was a topic described in one late-night session as “The Future of Warfare: Race with the Machines.” The premise was that we are at the dawn of a new era of conflict in which all wars will be, to some extent, cyber wars, and new weapons will combine radical advances in hardware, software and even biology.

Espen Barth Eide, the former foreign minister of Norway, imagined a future weapon that fuses GPS guidance, facial-recognition technology and artificial intelligence and can be programmed like an electronic hit man. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, noted the advantages of such “killer robots” for military planners: They don’t get tired, they wouldn’t get scared, and they would exercise consistent, if merciless, judgment.

“The genie will come out of the bottle,” predicted retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander who now runs the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. He noted that “warfare has always been a process of invention and adjustment.” A century ago, many people thought submarines were terrifying and unethical. Compared with, say, land mines or nuclear bombs, the effects of the new high-tech weapons may be less toxic and more precise.


Guests at a “Cyber Dinner” hosted here by the Atlantic Council considered the dawning world of killer appliances. In the coming “Internet of Things,” speakers noted, there will soon be more than 30 billion smart chips embedded in cars, elevators, refrigerators, thermostats and medical devices. These pervasive, connected systems may well have poor security and be easily hackable.

The big worry in the future, argued several tech experts at the dinner, may not be data privacy — forget about that — but data security. “You can know my blood type, but don’t change it,” one speaker explained. Hackers may be able to alter data in financial markets, hospitals and electronic grids — paralyzing normal economic and social activity.

The rapidly evolving interface of technology and security was one theme of an unusual panel discussion here that brought together intelligence chiefs from the US, Britain, the Netherlands and the European Union. Spy chiefs don’t usually attend such foreign policy gatherings, least of all in Germany, a country with a deep mistrust of intelligence agencies. But led by James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, this group made a collective pitch for greater transparency on intelligence issues as technology empowers individuals and adversaries.

Clapper opened the door on the brave new world of weaponry with his annual threat-assessment testimony last week before Congress. He made headlines with comments about the explosive growth of the Islamic State and Russia’s onslaught against Syrian rebels. But the most surprising part of Clapper’s testimony involved technology — especially the mischievous uses of the “Internet of Things” (or IoT), smart devices embedded in vehicles, appliances and other computer products.

“In the future, intelligence services might use the IoT for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” Clapper told Congress. And he warned in his testimony that as artificial intelligence is built into weapons, they will be “susceptible to a range of disruptive and deceptive tactics that might be difficult to anticipate or quickly understand.”

Iran’s Press TV predictably read Clapper’s testimony as a threat that America is about to enlist the world’s refrigerators as agents of the Great Satan: “The head of the US intelligence community has acknowledged for the first time that American spy agencies might use a new generation of smart household devices to increase their surveillance capabilities,” the Iranian news agency warned.

American, Russian and Chinese ability to use these New Age weapons is indeed worrisome. But more frightening is the ability of terrorist groups, whose signature may not always be discernible, to use cyber and other high-tech skills. The Islamic State has already used chemical weapons in battle, according to Clapper, and the group is known to be working with drones. The next step, experts here said, may be bioweapons.

“We may look back on the good old days when all we had to worry about was nuclear weapons,” said Eide. That sounds like a joke, until you think about what’s ahead.

— (c) 2015, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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