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Jul 2, 2018

Technology and democracy

Not much of a secret, NSA and FBI both have a technology that allows tracking cell phones even if they are turned off. According to Washington Post, it was one of the major contributors to eliminating Al Qaida leadership in Iraq. The Russian security services have that, as well, which helped them to win the second Chechen war. Again, I am not disclosing any state secrets here; the press have written about it extensively. And yet we were unable to find anyone in the law enforcement community who would agree to help us to use the technology to find a missing teenager. Moreover, all of them denied the very existence of such a technology, which was somewhat surprising to me.

I understand that just because one unit somewhere in the FBI can use it, does not mean that every officer has access to it. This is not how it works. Ok, I get it, national security and all that. The question I have is very simple – who gets to decide which technology can be used only to kill terrorists, but not to find a missing child? In a democratic society, who gets to say which is less important? While the very existence of it can be plausibly denied, yes, I’d buy an argument that it not for civilian use. Now everyone who can read knows it exists, since at least 2013, although there were similar reports much earlier, right after Bob Woodward disclosed that there was some “secret weapon” in use in Iraq. The tech itself exists since 2004 or so.

This is not a new question. Many technologies have been first developed for military use, and only then became available for civilian use. GPS is just one of many examples. The Internet is, arguably, another. As far as I know, the conversion process has always been driven by private industry, trying to make a buck. Now, in this case, there is no private industry that would be plausibly benefiting from the technology. Law enforcement does not operate like a business, although I am sure they would love to have a tool like that. I think the government has to step in, the legislative branch specifically. Otherwise, in such cases technology transfer may not happen for a long time, simply because no driver on the civilian side. Parents of missing teenagers are not a huge political force, unfortunately. The military are using public funds to develop all these new technologies, and we all should benefit from them as soon as it is practically possible.

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