Military consumerization spotlight: countering the threat of consumer technology in terrorist hands

Military consumerization spotlight: countering the threat of consumer technology in terrorist hands

Summary: On this, the anniversary of the events of 9/11, we spotlight how readily-available consumer technology might extend the reach of terrorists in new and disturbing ways. Plus, what DARPA's doing about it.


In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to work and I could spend all my time on hobbies. I’ve long had a fascination with hobbies like radio-control, model railroading, and even Lego. Unfortunately, I’ve never had much time, and I’ve never been very good at them.

I once built a small N-gauge model railroad in my apartment. I got a loop and a few switches working, but not much more. I didn’t have too much time to tinker with it, and got sidetracked by how much fun it was to get the engine running at top speed, send it around the track over-and-over until the centrifugal force sent it flying off the table. So much for that hobby.

Then I saw my friend fly RC airplanes. I decided to buy an RC helicopter, which I proceed to get up in the air once. I somehow flipped it, and sent it flying directly into the ground, smashing it into a few hundred pieces. Thinking I’d started too big, I bought one of those smaller, anyone-can-fly-them double-rotor RC helicopters and tried flying it in a more controlled environment: my garage. Apparently smashing a helicopter at full speed into the garage door isn’t good for the rotors. Who knew?

A few years later, I took another run at having a hobby, so I bought a Lego Mindstorms robotic kit at Toys-R-Us for about $250. The part that fascinated me was that this kit included a fully programmable processor, servos, and sensors. Plus, for a relatively cheap cost, you can buy a ton of aftermarket sensors that do everything from sense direction to temperature.

Sadly, I never got too far with the Mindstorms kit either. I do quite a bit of programming as part of my professional work and programming Mindstorms seemed a bit too much like the day job. But the idea was definitely neat, and it got me thinking about what you could build, especially if you could combine these technologies.

And that got me thinking about national security issues and terrorism. Back in 2009, in fact, I wrote an article for Counterterrorism Magazine that looked at the question of what would happen if terrorists and insurgents went beyond improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and started to use improvised computer controlled devices (ICCDs).

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, seems to share my concern. According to DARPA's director, Dr. Arati Prabhakar:

The current availability of COTS technologies in computing, sensing, imaging and communications, in particular, have introduced both opportunities and vulnerabilities for our national security.

Availability of advanced technology has placed capabilities in the hands of millions of people worldwide, capabilities that until as recently as 15 years ago were the exclusive domain of the military. The vulnerabilities introduced by this mass availability may be seen in many areas, including electronic warfare systems.

This isn’t just blue-sky thinking. Let’s take a look at what some innovative hobbyists have been working on, and then think about the implications.

First-person view flying vehicle

Our first example is the Spy Hawk, an off-the-shelf remote-control airplane that costs about $300. This device allows you to fly the plane from the plane’s point of view.

I really like the guy in the following YouTube video, but he inadvertently shows how potentially troubling this off-the-shelf technology can be. Watch as he flies the unmanned vehicle right next to a major stadium, then think about the implications of what would happen if this technology were transferred to a model capable of carrying a dangerous payload.

The device even has an automatic, return-to-home feature.

 Computer-controlled autopilot

In the following video, another hobbyist shows how he incorporated a Lego Mindstorms computer inside an RC airplane and uses IR sensors and a compass to provide a rudimentary autopilot capability. The scary potential with this is how it might be used to target a destination, fly, and potentially hit a target, all on autopilot.

The total cost of this system is probably under $2,000. The Mindstorms device is about $250, and a model airplane like the one the hobbyist is holding costs somewhere between $400 and $1,500.

Automatic hover and terrain following

This next video shows a gadget (and yes, this is something I might not crash) that can automatically be set to a hover position and can be programmed to terrain-follow. Although this is a very small device, the potentially destructive uses of such an easily available technology is limited only by how twisted a bad guy's imagination might get. This device runs between about $600 and $900.

Underwater ROV capable of 100-meter depth

Finally, we’ll go from air to sea. In the following video, a “maker” shows how it’s possible to build a relatively inexpensive remotely operated vehicle (ROV) capable of going down deeper than a diver. It’s also capable of carrying a payload. While the OpenROV standard is very exciting from a scientific and geekerly perspective, the potential for terrorists to deliver a payload silently and unseen is terrifying as well.

Technology as a double-edged sword

DARPA’s Prabhakar sees the availability of consumer-grade high-technology as a double-edged sword. She uses the example of GPS jamming:

Warfighters have depended for decades on global positioning satellite (GPS) technology, and have incorporated it into guided munitions and other platforms to meet rigid requirements for guidance and navigation.

An adversary with inexpensive COTS transmitter technology can jam these GPS-based systems, and the inherently weak GPS satellite signals make it impractical to work around the jamming by somehow improving the GPS receivers.

This is becoming a true arms race. Not only do we have to counter threats from nation-state enemies (like we did with the Soviets during the cold war), now we have to counter threats from independent groups using commercial, off-the-shelf technology.

It’s quite the challenge, but DARPA research seems to be looking ahead at countering the threat. Speaking now of countering the GPS jamming threat, DARPA’s Director Prabhakar reports:

DARPA is investing in self-contained internal navigation systems. DARPA's analysis revealed that extending the performance of today's inertial guidance systems by a factor of 20 -- from roughly 1 minute to 18 minutes -- will permit 98 percent of our GPS-dependent weapons to operate at GPS accuracy without a GPS signal.

DARPA's Micro-Technology for Positioning, Navigation and Timing seeks to overcome these potential challenges by developing technologies for self-contained, chip-scale inertial navigation and precision guidance. The program recently developed a micro-nuclear magnetic resonance gyro that uses the spin of atomic nuclei to measure rotation.

This provides the ability to achieve navigation-grade performance with a two orders-of-magnitude reduction in size, weight, and power from state-of-the-art navigation grade gyroscopes currently used in inertial measurement units. This will allow micro-nuclear magnetic resonance gyros to be used in systems for personal navigation, navigation in GPS-denied areas, and on micro-UAVs.

Essentially, what she’s saying is that if GPS can be jammed, let’s build devices that don’t rely on GPS. That makes sense, and self-contained navigation systems also don’t need to radiate signals in stealth conditions, making them more difficult to detect on the battlefield.

Even so, I look at all these devices, all this computer intelligence, the reach of the Internet, and I have to wonder whether or not we are, in fact, building our own Skynet.

Where’s the Governator when you need him?

Topics: Consumerization, Government, Government US, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • So What Else Is New?

    Terrorism has always, pretty much by definition, been a low-budget activity. The 9/11 hijackers probably only needed a six-figure expenditure to execute their entire plan.

    In other words, being able to think up new bogeymen doesn’t entitle you credit to for having a higher-than-room-temperature IQ: they’re already under every bed. Remember what terrorism is about: it’s about spreading fear and terror—not about actually killing and maiming large numbers of people, but simply making large numbers of people feel the threat of being killed and maimed.

    If you’re spending a lot of your time worrying about where the next terrorist attack might come from, then they’ve already achieved their goal.
    • Respectfully disagree on some points

      * What I think the author would say is "new" is the potential, if not inevitable, escalation in the level of technology to be used by terrorists. I agree it's no surprise to many, but I'm sure there are some in the general public that aren't aware that almost anybody can buy and build a drone capable of being used as a weapon.

      * Your definition of terrorism is too constrained. It's also about hate, revenge, killing, maiming, destroying. Who's to say if a particular terrorist would be satisfied just knowing you're afraid. Some want blood, misery, despair, death. Fear may be just icing on the cake for them.

      * Agreed it doesn't help to "worry" but I think the author's concern is awareness, vigilance, and preparation. If we simply quit "worrying" about terrorism, that doesn't make the threat go away, or make us any safer. I'd feel better knowing DoD, DHS, CIA, etc. were, in fact, "worrying" about these threats (and, obviously, doing something about them).
  • The sad truth

    The sad truth is that a small group of technically minded people could carry off a horrific attack using off the shelf technology. An auto-piloted drone, using GPS technology that could deliver a small payload from 10 miles away is probably within the capabilities of many intelligent tinkerers.

    However, I'm much more worried about low-tech attacks like those carried out by the D.C. shooters in the early 2000's. A high powered rifle, a non-descript looking vehicle, and a compent sniper can sow all sorts of havoc and paralyze a city with fear in just a few days. And none of this is difficult to acquire or requires much in the way of technical skills to accomplish.
    • RE: The sad truth

      I think you should be much more worried about someone sneaking a nuclear weapon into the country. Far more potential for havoc. This democratization of technology applies to nuclear weapons as well.

      • Difficult

        It's really, really, really difficult to get your hands on enriched uranium or weapons grade plutonium. And once you have, turning that into a workable bomb is not a trivial matter either. North Korea's been trying to do so for a while now and their attempts have fizzled. If a state actor like North Kore can't do it (and they can devote millions of dollars to the effort) then I don't see that as a credible immediate terrorist threat. Meanwhile a D.C. sniper type attack could be staged tomorrow, by tens of thousands of people already in the U.S.
        • To clarify

          I don't mean that we might see tens of thousands doing this, but rather, that any one of tens of thousands of people in this country could decide to do carry out such an attack at a moment's notice (and these are people who already own a siper/hunting rifle).
    • Re: The sad truth

      The “sad truth” is that terrorism is not about actually killing and maiming large numbers of people, it is about putting the fear of being killed and maimed into large numbers of people.

      Look at the way the USA reacted after 9/11—actually overreacted, with paralyzing paranoid fear. The terrorists couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.

      Compare how Britain reacted after the 7/7 London bombings—they suffered the pain, but then most people just went on with their daily lives. If people are not terrorized, then the terrorists have failed to achieve their goal.

      So the ultimate answer to terrorism is simple: refuse to be terrorized.
  • If a thing is known to be possible...

    If a thing is known to be possible, it is, sooner or later, inevitable.

    As the general educational level has improved, many more people have begun to see things that can be done with what is on hand. The RC helicopters and navigational aids the writer speaks of are new examples.

    But persons of ill will could always do immense harm with what they can buy at grocery and hardware stores. It doesn't take much; a terrorist with ten pounds of Splenda(tm) can shut down a busy bridge or roadway while the"white powder " is tested -- and one with a box of road flares can destroy whole communities. Nothing high-tech about it.

    I suspect the DoD is worrying about threats that resemble what it can do, not what adversaries can. That cedes enemies the advantage of asymmetrical warfare. Can the DoD afford to? Can we?
    • You hit the nail on the head

      .. terrorism is asymmetric - one person with limited resources can pose a sufficient threat that billions are required to protect against it. Just think of the cost in time and security of the liquid ban at airport security.

      The previous post is right - don't give in to terrorism. Here in the UK, we suffered IRA terrorism for quarter of a century. Thus many of grew up with as a background risk - lower than the risk in crossing the road. This is part of the problem - most people cannot separate out the real risk from the perceived risk, and that is why terrorism is effective - more so in some countries than others.

      Knowing the effort it took me to get Olympic tickets, there was no way I was going to miss out on the experience of a lifetime. Yet I know people who had tickets and didn't go because they were worried. I go the last laugh - I had a great time, and I expect others were left wishing they had gone after all. Olympic tickets were rarer than dinosaur droppings.
  • And then there's real firepower

    I"m not certain if this video is a mockup or real... either way it's another example of consumer tech possibly used for nogood.
    • That is insane!

      Wow. I'd probably crash that, too.
      David Gewirtz
  • better answer

    I wouldn't get hung on on the details...jamming GPS, etc. The larger point is that technology is being "democratized", meaning vast armies are increasingly obsolete...

  • helo

    Low tech hell (we)veterans worried about all this before 911 as planes increased in size we realized that it was just a mater of time that someone would use a plane as a bomb. after 911 we thought about chemical liquid bombs and the danger. So lets just say that it does not take very much to cause damage. Hell some guy in Australia built his own MX missile a few years ago. this is not news to those who have been in the military .hell we had fully remote controlled planes in the 70's in the military. So yes be afraid be very afraid because we are no longer safe that it what this article is really saying . More fear mongers who wont tell you the odds of this shit hitting you. Live long and prosper and don’t be so afraid of the world. The tech part of the article I like the rest grow up
    • RC planes existed long before that

      My dad used to build them for Army Air Core in the late 30's. In the 40's they were used to test and develop radar systems. After that they were also used for target practice. MUCH safer than towing a target, and the flight pattern could be more realistic.
    • helo

      i was not talking about model planes i was talking about real planes not toys (ie) f-4s and a-7s
  • But drone scenario plays better to global audience

    Imagine the propaganda value for a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda if they were able to succeed with a drone strike on an American target. Imagine their fist-pumping at "giving us a dose of our own medicine." Sad. Frightening. The 21st century will be...interesting.
  • Old School Terror?

    The US Army was persuaded to invest the equivalent of a few million during WW2 by a dentist who noticed the behavior of bats finding roosting places. The plan was to drop a bomb that would open at altitude and release bats with small acid-timed fuses and incendiary charges attached, knowing Japanese cities were full of wood and paper buildings. They successfully tested the ability to drop unarmed bats. Then they took chilled bats out to test the fused charges, intending to do "static" tests before the bats woke up. But the weather was so hot that the bats woke up just after the charges were attached, flew away, dispersed to the eaves of the base buildings, and burned down half the base! No injuries except the bats, but the project was scrubbed, even though the sponsor knew it worked.

    With drone technology, radio control to activate digital timers on release, and so forth, terrorists could cause quite a bit of damage with a night raid on suburban housing. Maybe DHS should search tourists leaving national and state parks that have caves!
  • Something to think about

    Maybe we should consider the effects of this article using different optics. Should an in-depth article like this one be broadcasted all over the world? There are many new terrorists who are not knowledgeable in all of the techniques of terrorism. I wonder how many of the readers could take this information and build a plane like the one in the article and then make it a weapon of destruction? This is a very informative article but times have changed; we live in a world filled with many different kinds of hate. Based on this type of subject I’m not sure writers should be providing all the answers in one article.
    • no

      this is part of the Problem to many nuts on the net with access to way to much information. i find info all the time that should be in the hands of the military or professionals.not the average joe.
  • And they're breathing our air, too

    And driving our cars. And watching our TV. And, and.... well, let's just go back to the caves and savannahs.