Monday, December 29, 2014

Op-Ed: Weapons of Mass Data

June 15, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

I was talking to a friend in South Asia on Skype this morning, and we were discussing what we both thought was quite remarkable. We talked about information. Data. He remarked that it was interesting how bits of information, files small enough to fit in a 4GB flash drive, can be so powerful and influential. I thought about this and agreed that it is quite amazing. The nature of our conversation wasn’t necessarily about the achievements of modern technology. We were discussing what had happened months, weeks, and days before 9/11.

9/11 Memorial. Courtesy of Al Jazeera English.

There are a lot of things going on in his part of the globe—as always—that not many people really know about, or even care to know about. Imagine this: A network of college-educated men, of various ages and backgrounds, working together towards one ultra-concentrated goal. These guys were moving “weight”, so to speak, but the packages they were relaying across international borders weren’t bricks of cocaine or marijuana, like what drug cartels do; nor were they transporting caches of automatic weapons and anti-aircraft missiles. They weren’t even handing each other briefcases packed with cold cash (that’s what wire transfer centers and off-shore bank accounts are for). They were passing along information. Data. But these electronic files aren’t the kind of things you and I have in our hard drives (I hope). These packets of information wrote the first chapters of the 21st Century and forever changed how we functioned as a society.

Everything from immigration laws to gas prices were affected by the consequences of 9/11, and how our political and military leaders reacted. Even our economic shortcomings may have been triggered by 9/11, just by studying how much we’ve spent on two wars that were conducted simultaneously, and were in full operation for about the same amount of time (though operations Afghanistan is still ongoing). Do you know how much a single F-22 Raptor fighter jet costs? A little over $400 million.

What sort of information did these terrorists regard with such high value and importance? They were coordinates; maps; blueprints; identities; account numbers; instructions. All of those fragments of data led to commercial jets slamming into heart of the Western hemisphere’s consciousness.

I haven’t been keeping up with the Central and South Asian regions that much, since the diplomatic strains between Washington and Pakistan became more glaring. Likewise, ever since U.S. forces pulled out in large numbers from Iraq, that area of the Middle East hasn’t captured my attention that much, either. In a way, the Arab Spring sort of stole the spotlight. But you shouldn’t pay attention to just those regions. There are organizations and cells in many other parts of the world that are instrumental in perpetuating war. Afghanistan and Iraq are the name brands in American foreign policy. No one really thinks about Yemen, or the Philippines, or Latin America, or even London and Germany when they think of international terrorism. Do people still think these operatives live in caves? The U.S. and NATO forces have probably spent more time in the harsh sandy terrain than the head honchos they’re after. Osama bin Laden was found and shot dead in a Pakistani suburb, near a military academy, where he lived in “open secrecy” for months, if not years, with his family and security personnel.

This is just an example of one group that utilizes information to achieve something massive in real-world applications. A source, while working on a different kind of assignment, once told me to “follow the money”. To me, that’s just a more specific version of saying, “Follow the information”. I wonder where the rabbit hole will lead me if I dive deep enough. Would I wind up in Wonderland, or a place even stranger?

But what’s stranger than truth? Ultimately, that’s what we seek in journalism. It’s our Holy Grail. The concept is absurd in this day and age of corporate-influenced media conglomerates. Despite this, I believe that information is lethal in any form—whether it be a blueprint for destruction, or words that try their best to articulate the complexities of humanity.

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