But imagine an airspace in the near future saturated with drones (ranging from police and internal security drones to those being contemplated by Amazon and WalMart for delivery of purchases, as well as “amateur” civilian drones) — any of which could be hacked. The scope of the problem facing us if this becomes reality is soon apparent. The fact that an actor from another state or a terrorist sitting halfway across the world could hack such drones and use them for crude but effective attacks (which could include simply causing numbers of drones to crash unpredictably, perhaps in tandem) is a demonstration of the fact that the more we deploy complex and interconnected technology, the more we make ourselves increasingly vulnerable. But even de-networking would be of limited help here: malevolent actors do not even need to hack military drones to use drones as weapons. Commercially available civilian drones can be converted into capable tools for surveillance and even for attack — and now have ranges up to three miles from the originator.
The hijacking of technologies for alternative violent use is not limited to drones. One under-discussed issue in the fight against ISIS is that the group has probably harvested enough radioactive medical materials from hospitals in areas that they have occupied to make several dirty bombs. While the physical and even health-related effects of a dirty bomb might in the event of its deployment be quite minimal, the financial damage could be devastating if one were detonated in a densely populated major financial center, effectively reducing to zero the value of many square blocks of valuable real estate. This is yet another example of the fragility of a hyperconnected system.
The emergent weapons described here are only the tip of the iceberg. From autonomous military robots to bio-weapons, an increasingly diverse panoply now sits at the fingertips of a pullulating group of actors incumbent or fringe, known or unknown. We have entered the era of irregular warfare and exotic weaponry, and it will be an era dominated by the most innovative designers, resource-managers, strategists and tacticians — no matter whom they happen to be fighting for.
Dee Smith is the founder and CEO of Strategic Insight Group.