Technology, terrorism, media panic

Shalini Singh of the Times of India reports on wireless networks (“WiFi networks under attack from wardrivers”, Times of India, Online, 1 Sep 2008, 0033 hrs IST, URL), which subtly illuminates media imagination of web and technology against the backdrop of terrorism. Or to put it another way, how frames of terrorism seep into routine journalistic reportage. These are frames of fear and their impact on this report goes thus: Wireless networks, which connect us to the internet, are also potential portals for the bad guys who can (or will) misuse it for terrorism. The report on wireless network security states:

The terror emails sent from the WiFi connections of an American in Navi Mumbai and Mumbai’s Khalsa College could possibly be examples of such misuse.

And to buttress her point, the journalist makes the paranoid connection between technology and terrorists (who are of course always Muslims).

The month of August saw a surge in such activity. Terror emails linked to July’s bomb blasts in Ahmedabad were traced to American national Kenneth Haywood’s unsecured WiFi network. Another terror email sent in the name of Indian Mujahideen was traced to a computer in Mumbai’s Khalsa College.

As my friend Angad pointed out, the Indian police and the state has a rather Talibanesque zeal (read here). The Indian media (rather journalists) must identify with this zeal to play out their own panic in their narratives and imagine the technological horror for its readers. This report is not just about technological safeguards but how it offers the possibility of extrapolating it to a (dominant) society under siege from (Muslim) terrorists. Here the network is not merely the literal wireless network but its imagination as a wider modern and networked Indian society. Thus, the wireless network serves as a metaphor for a modern, technologically advancing, urban nation and how it remains threatened from insiders against the project of India. We cannot lose sight of the constant media harping of the idea of India as a subset of a global liberal economic order (for e.g., shining India) and double digit growth.

Image of Ahmedabad blasts aftermath

Image of Ahmedabad blasts aftermath

Even at a technological level wireless networks, even with the best security measures can only sustain a hack for so long. Ask Bruce Schneier (URL) and he will tell you that anybody who says we need more and more secrecy is just wrong and cyber-terrorism is media scare mongering especially when it peddles nonsense and imagines vigilante heroes who are doing their bit to protect society:

Says Sumit Grover, a vigilante wardriver, “I discovered many unprotected networks, observed their misuse. Over the past year, I tried to alert the ISPs involved, the Computer Emergency Response Team which analyzes threats to computers and networks in India, Trai, the ISP Association of India and even the IT ministry. Nobody took notice. Sadly, this was followed by a spate of terror attacks.”

“Nobody taking note of unprotected networks… sadly this was followed by a spate of terror attacks!” OMG! Time for us to pull the drawbridges and get the boiling oil ready! The bulk of the evidence to date shows that terrorist groups are making widespread use of the Internet and securing a few wireless networks will not disrupt communication channels of terrorists. One can sit at a cyber cafe in India and send a threatening email to anybody without leaving any trace. It does not require unsecure wireless networks. The problem here is that the journalist makes the problematic connection between a cub story on wireless security and terrorism, which draws a wink and nod connection between Muslims and terrorism.

Bibliography

Anon (2008) Ahmedabad attack: Terror email leads to Mumbai Times of India [Online ] 27 Jul 2008, 0003 hrs IST http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Ahmedabad_attack_Terror_email_leads_to_Mumbai/articleshow/msid-3286967,curpg-1.cms

Ward, Mark (2004)”Cyber terrorism ‘overhyped'” BBC [Online] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/2850541.stm

Weimann, Gabriel (2005) “Cyberterrorism: The Sum of All Fears?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 28, Issue 2 February 2005 , pages 129 – 149

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