Saturday, February 14, 2015

Driving Into the Future on Autopilot - How the Internet of Everything May Challenge Freedom

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons - Andrea Boldizsar
Imagine this.  You’ve been down sized and been out of work for a few months.  You’ve fallen behind on your payments.  You go to bed and wake one morning to discover your car is missing.  Stolen?  No, it drove itself off to your car finance company.  Seem farfetched?  How about this one.  You’re driving down the road to your appointed destination when suddenly your car takes an unplanned detour to the nearest police road block and shuts off.  Welcome to the future.

As technology progresses, society increasingly is  encountering challenges to traditional notions of privacy.  Yet, these concerns are merely the front edge of a more serious storm brewing over fundamental concepts of personal control and freedom.  Today, we already are experiencing the impact of new consumer technologies in regards to our privacy.  When it comes to Internet and networked enabled technologies, there is a rule of quid pro quo in effect where in order to get information or services you must give information.  The most notable type of personal information we routinely furnish to untold numbers of parties is our location.  Many of our favorite mobile “apps” routinely report our location to third party companies.  What is done with this information is really not known.  Most claim they will remove personal identifying information from your data and then combined with generic data of others to discover trends and patterns.  These trends and patterns are theoretically used to “optimize” your experience.  As any savvy consumer knows, this is code speak for personalized targeted marketing.  Further, as we all know, you don’t have a choice in whether you want an optimized experience or not.  It’s take it or leave it.  In fact, when we purchase or license technology there is the inevitable EULA (End User License Agreement) accompanied by a check box or button acknowledging your agreement to the provider’s terms.  We all routinely click and agree because there is no other option, and for the average consumer the terms are unintelligible and meaningless in any case. In essence, we rely on the good graces of some attorney at Big Co. and its executives to determine what is reasonable, and generally this means grudgingly complying with consumer laws where applicable and otherwise finding inoffensive ways of telling you the many rights and restrictions Big Co. imposes because it is their stuff and they decide how, why, when and who uses their stuff.  The fact is nearly two decades into the consumer technology revolution the average person is already trained to roll-over for a cookie.

So, what stops a financing company from requiring that you agree that your self-driving car turn itself in if you’re late on a payment?  Nothing.  In fact, the training is already underway thanks to auto insurance companies under slickly marketed “safe driver” discount programs.  Drivers can install a device that monitors and reports your driving habits and provided the rules of safe driving are obeyed, your insurance premium is discounted.  One might say, so what; it’s voluntary.  But, the question is for how long.  Will there be a day when you can’t manually operate a car in the name of safety?  Will there be a day when you can’t hop in a car for a drive without somebody somewhere knowing where you are and where you are going? 

This is the insidious nature of technology, especially once the new phase of technology known as the internet of everything kicks into overdrive.  The internet is nothing but a vast data communication network.  Interconnecting everything may bring untold innovations and benefits that improve our day to day lives, but the internet of everything comes at a price – to get, you must give.   The new technology economy operates not only on money, but on information currency.  With information comes power, especially when personal information is made an essential aspect of the delivery of the service or functioning of the device.  As devices connect and depend on cloud based intelligence to make decisions, we will begin to see our everyday habits and preferences being altered in subtle ways to better align with the desires and interests of others – those in control of the technology.  This will occur first by interactive messaging, then by incentive based preferences, then by autonomous command.  We have seen hints of this type of manipulation when Facebook launched an undisclosed psychological experiment on its users by increasing negative responses in newsfeeds to gauge how emotional states can be spread.  After a backlash, the experiment was terminated with a corporate mea culpa but with the caveat that users agreed to the experiments in terms of service.  Essentially, the logic was O.K. you caught us, but we didn’t do anything wrong because you agreed to it.  Riot Games, a massive online mobile gaming company, gives us a farther glimpse in to the future.  It recently announced that its platform is being used to experiment with online user behavior modification, and is touting its gaming community as the world’s largest psychology lab.  Riot claims its motivation is to encourage good behavior, and uses various “punishments” to coerce desired behavior.  While Riot’s motivation might be well meaning, the road to abuse and manipulation is being laid with the same reckless abandon as illegal loggers are cutting through the Amazonian forests.   
Again, one might say the concern is overblown because we’re talking about games and social media sites.  But let’s take something that we all need, use and has a direct impact our lives – electricity.  Once all appliances are web connected, energy consumption can be granularly monitored.  Once consumption is monitored, alerts and recommendations to optimize your usage will follow, and in fact, many energy monitoring applications are doing this today.  This will inevitably evolve into energy usage allocations and tiered pricing to de-incentivize excessive use (think Riot’s punishment scheme), and then to automatic control of devices to block usage to control consumption.  Some may think this is a fine idea because it advances conservation.  But, the problem is one man’s good idea is another’s oppression, and this where the government comes in.
As more information about where we are, what we do and how we do it is collected, stored, and dissected by vast numbers of private businesses, these business become voluntary and involuntary privatized arms of the government.  In the “old” days, the telephone company was the first stop in any investigation.  With a subpoena in hand, law enforcement could learn who you talked to and when, and if necessary get a warrant to tap into your conversations.  Today, with “big data” massive amounts of historical information are being captured and stored about where you’ve been, with whom you have communicated, what you’ve communicated, what you have purchased, what you’ve read, what you’ve searched, who your family and friends are, and much more.  But “big data” is still in its infancy, and big data is going to get a whole lot bigger still.  Soon there will big data consortiums and exchanges where inconceivably vast pools of data are logically aggregated and traded.  Your data footprint will ultimately turn into the equivalent of your life’s data DNA.
As more regulations and laws are passed that control businesses, the more intertwined and reliant businesses become on the good graces of government.  These regulations can be fashioned to require business to keep information about you, and this in turn becomes a powerful investigative tool.  The problem is private big data become easily identified and accessible targets for investigation, and generally companies are loath to resist subpoenas and warrants.  It costs too much and they lose because the legal standard of probable cause justifying a request is ludicrously low in practice.  To give you a sense of the laxity, the FISA court approved over 20,000 requests for warrants between 1978 and 2013, and reject a grand total of 11 requests in the 35 year period.  Again, some might say if you are doing no wrong there is nothing to worry about.  True, perhaps. 
But what happens when government regulation indirectly imposes restraints on day to day freedoms and choices?  Take for example CAFÉ standards.  New CAFE standards coming into effect are causing automakers to phase out large vehicles from their portfolios. If you understand physics, there is every reason to buy a bigger vehicle and if you wish to pay the extra fuel charges it would seem like a legitimate and reasonable choice.  But, the fact is many are being indirectly forced to buy smaller fuel efficient cars, the physics of safety be damned.  So, is it not difficult to imagine that as corporations acquire more power through connective technology, the devil’s bargain will be struck.  Messy overt methods of control through law making and regulation will be deftly supplanted by sophisticated indirect regulatory policies of control enforced by technology companies. 
So, let’s take the seemingly outlandish example with which we started.  Your car is driving down the road.  A burglary is reported and a description matching your car is reported with a partial license plate reading of 3 digits.  Using license plate reading technology, your car is spotted and three digits match.  Your license number is checked against your car make and color.  It is a close possible match.  Using the car registration title database, your finance company is retrieved and connected.  Under your financing, you agreed to have your car monitored and controlled to comply with all applicable laws.  A request to detain on reasonable cause issues from law enforcement and is sent to the finance company.  The finance company is connected to the manufacturer’s automatic monitoring system.  A command is sent to your vehicle to proceed and stop at the closest police vehicle rendezvous point.  Blue and red light strobes suddenly appear  on your next-gen multimedia entrainment system and an audible message is played pleasantly announcing you have been requested to be pulled over, remain with your vehicle and wait instructions from police who will meet you in approximately three minutes.  This is followed by “please refrain from making any unusual movements.  Please keep both hands on the dashboard in a visible position as the officer approaches.  Carefully follow instructions for your own safety and for the safety of the officer.  Please be advised that in-vehicle video and audio is being recorded and may be used against you in a court of law.”
Could there be a day when your car arrests you?  Why not?  It will seem like a good idea to somebody.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Attack – A Foreshadowing of a U.S. Nightmare

At the risk of overstating causation, I have come to believe that the Jungian notion of collective unconsciousness operates like an unseen force in the world of terrorism.  This seems especially true in the context of modern, loosely affiliated terror groups.  While top-down organizational planning occurs in some cases, it is striking how many incidents are characterized as “lone wolf” exploits.  Despite this characterization, we know that these actors do not act alone in a broader sense.  Putting aside self-identification with a radical ideology, they also exhibit discernible patterns of approach and action.  Their tactics are drawn from a well of depravity over time and place, and show signs of adaptive continuity.  And, this brings me to my point.  I see a confluence of terror actions that reflect a shared vector of thinking which ought to raise alarms.  I am very worried that it is only a matter of time before a US school undergoes a commando style terrorist attack.  There are too many behavioral signals that lead in this direction.

The Paris terror attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine comes on the heels of the Pakistan school massacre where Taliban terrorists indiscriminately attacked a school and left 153 dead.  In the Pakistan school attack, a relatively few attackers were able to inflict massive casualties through a coordinated military style attack on a “soft” target.  The Charlie Hebdo attack was also a small coordinated action against a soft civilian target. But, the Paris attack also bears a similarity to the Boston Marathon bombings.  In each case, the perpetrators are disaffected immigrant bothers. Whether the Tsarnaev brothers influenced the suspected brothers in the Paris attack is not known, yet it bears a signature.

Following this Gestalt, the United States suffered the worst school shooting in history at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut in December 2012.  While not undertaken by a “terrorist” in the classical sense, the event was a proof point that very large casualties can be achieved by one actor, and schools are generally defenseless.  It also inflicted vast damage to the US national psyche.  Simply put, attack schools and you attack the very heart and soul of America.  Whether Adam Lanza inspired the Pakistan Taliban would be pure speculation, but again there is a signature of evil bearing a resemblance.  While the Taliban have routinely attacked small girls’ schools in Afghanistan under the pretense of religious offense, the Pakistan school attack had an entirely different tone. It was undertaken purely to exact great retribution and strike massive fear in the Pakistani population.  Framed differently, Sandy Hook showed feasibility and effect. A terror mind could not help but be influenced by the reality of its devastating effect.
The Paris attack has a linger to the Mumbai terror attacks in November of 2008 which resulted in 164 dead and over 300 wounded.  Mumbai was a tactical and behavioral departure point.  It showed that commando style attacks by a small coordinated group could exact large casualties on soft civilian targets.  While bombs were used, the use of automatic weapons was prominent.  The “success” of this style of attack again left its mark on the master psyche of terrorists.  The Charlie Hebdo attack just reinforced this notion. 

Going back even further though, it is possible to follow this deadly lineage and extract some lessons.  In 1998, the United States embassy bombings occurred which killed hundreds of people in simultaneous truck bomb explosions in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The date of the bombings marked the eighth anniversary of the arrival of American forces in Saudi Arabia.  These bombings succeeded the Khobar Tower bombing in 1996, which was an attack on a US airman residential complex.  These attacks, while striking an arguably governmental targets, were nonetheless soft targets.  In the Khobar case, a petroleum truck bomb was detonated sheering off half of the building and killed 19 airmen in Saudi Arabia.   A year earlier, in 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building with a truck bomb filled with fertilizer, collapsing half of the building and killing 168 people and injuring over 600 others.  The Oklahoma City attack was preceded by the first Twin Towers attack in 1993 when a truck bomb was driven into the belowground garage and detonated.  Even further back in time, we find the 1983 Marine Barracks attack in Beirut, which killed 229 servicemen with two truck bombs.  The Khobar attack a decade is eerily similar to it.  It is difficult to avoid the parallelism and conspiracy in thought that propels the next act of barbarity.
As far as the recent Paris attack is concerned, the perpetrators appear to have some connection with Syria.  As thousands easily move through Europe to fight with ISIS, these radicalized fighters will return as better trained, battle hardened zealots in Europe.  We can see the risks and challenges that European nations will continue to face.  But, the United States is hardly better off.  Without entering into the debate over semiautomatic weapons, the fact is powerful weapons are readily accessible and the United States’ porous borders affords small groups of terrorists relatively easy entry to the country. To assume we will remain insulated from motivated radical terrorists is a deadly mistake.  The means, proven feasibility, massive psychological terror factor and intent are all present.  The chance of commando style attach on a school by a few individuals is a real threat, as is a truck bomb attack.  While obtaining large quantities of explosive materials is difficult, hijacking or stealing a fuel tanker is not.  Driving a tanker into a school facility and detonating is a real possibility given past exploits.  Finally, using the two tactics in combination is also a possibility, given that have used similar tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq on police and army compounds.

In speaking with one law enforcement person about school safety, he indicated that most schools are not worried about active shooters, and are dealing with more practical day to day security problems.  While I can appreciate this pragmatism, there is an overarching pattern of potentiality borne out of past conduct that we ought to recognize.  I greatly fear that a terror attack on an U.S. school by militants is only a matter of time, and the effects will rock this Nation to its core.  I hope and pray that I am wrong. 
Yet, we need to heed the clarion call and continue to make changes in our security posture.  First, schools buildings need to be shielded from a truck assault.  Any large truck, like a tanker or trailer truck, needs to be routed and controlled outside a blast zone until it is verified.  Regional areas should have quick reaction counterterror swat teams that are equipped to respond and defeat well equipped and military trained terrorists.  Schools and law enforcement agencies need to have real time collaboration capabilities for situational awareness and ground truth for tactical advantage. Being able to communicate with school personnel and see inside schools is essential.  Glass windows and doors need to be upgraded to be more breach proof to delay an assault.  Reinforced safe areas should be created in schools.  More one-way exits should be installed to enable personnel and students to evacuate without going through bottleneck points and feeder spaces that create kill zones.  While many of these suggestions may seem over the top, a terrorist attack is by its nature dealing with the unthinkable.  The cost of hardening our schools is a small price to pay if it can save the lives of several hundred or more innocent children – namely ours.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why the Aereo Court Got it Wrong and What it Means

Image Credit: Wikipedia Public Domain
The US Supreme Court got it wrong in the Aereo[i] Decision, and it exemplifies a problem in US courts today.  Judges with little or no understanding of technology are making decisions that have far-reaching impacts on future innovation.  As a general matter, the Federal court system, especially at the appeals level, is comprised of older judges, many of whom are technically illiterate.[ii]  Further, even at the circuit level the vast percentage of judges as a matter of educational background and experience are lacking in the most basic technical understanding to be minimally equipped to make sound decisions.[iii]  Yet, it is nearly universally acknowledged that that our economy has undergone a shift from manufacturing to a digital information economy, and it is the court system that adjudicates disputes and is often forced to make decisions either based on outdated laws or immature digital laws that require an appreciation of technical context and nuance.   Aereo is a classic failure to intelligently navigate the realities of new technology that appear to trespass on old laws.   

In brief, Aereo Inc., is an innovative internet based video distribution company that uses individual antennas to receive locally broadcast TV transmissions then retransmits them to subscribers over the internet one a one to one basis.  The content of the transmission is not altered and is merely passed on to an individual subscriber that elects to request and receive the retransmitted stream for his viewing.   ABC and other broadcasters sued Aereo alleging copyright infringement.  In June, 2014, the US Supreme Court ruled that Aereo violated the Copyright Act of 1976 because Aereo infringed on a copyright owner’s exclusive right to perform the copyrighted work.  The Court relied on amendments to the Copyright Act that were introduced nearly 40 years ago when Congress took aim at Community Access Television (CATV) providers.  CATV providers were organizations that erected large antennas clusters to capture weak TV signal transmissions and retransmit them to underserved viewers in communities.  The Congress revised the Copyright Act to specifically state that the act of retransmission is a right reserved to copyright owners, reversing an earlier line of court decisions that held that merely retransmitting a broadcast without altering its content was not a performance protected under copyright laws.  Making an analogy to CATV providers, the Court essentially found that Aereo was performing the same function and therefore the Congress must have meant to prohibit Aereo’s activities.  

In reality, the Supreme Court made a decision on gut feel, effectively concluding Aereo had created some kind of “infernal machine” that beat the system.  In so many words, the Court divined that a 1970s Congress would have been offended by the outcome of Aereo’s technology rather than its substance.

In making its decision, the Supreme Court rejected several Aereo arguments that sought to distinguish it from a CATV provider.  These arguments included that unlike a CATV provider, Aereo was a one antenna to one viewer retransmission.  Whereas a CATV provider essentially rebroadcasts to anybody within its reception range, an Aereo subscriber, if it chooses to watch a show, must request the show and then when it does, a single antenna is enlisted to pick up the signal which is then converted to IP, temporarily stored and then forwarded to the requesting viewer.  In essence, Aereo argued that a one to one retransmission was not a public performance.  Aereo further argued that it was not a transmission within the meaning of the Copyright Act because it was not a broadcast transmission, meaning that it was not simultaneously transmitted in a wide area or a large number of viewers.    Calling upon poor analogies, the court rejected these arguments, and, most importantly, stated it was deferring to Congress’s intent.

When interpreting a law, deferring to the lawmaker’s intent, that is- determining what lawmakers meant when they enacted a law, has been recognized as the standard of proper judicial review since our founding.  However, despite the appearance of deference in this case, the Supreme Court, in reality, did the opposite.   Essentially, the Court took a nearly forty year old law that could not possibly have conceived or foreseen the technology at issue and speculated what Congress’ intent would have been if it understood the technology.  At some point, extrapolating intent to new circumstances moves beyond reasonable assumptions to activist speculation. This is the case here.

One of the fundamental principles underpinning the validity of any law is its certainty and clarity.  When a law is vague, it deprives all citizens of substantive due process, because a citizen cannot reliably determine whether an act is lawful or unlawful. Not knowing which the case is, a citizen must either forbear from an activity in fear that it may subsequently be determined unlawful or engage in activity under the threat of potential future jeopardy.  This is often referred to in the law as having a “chilling” effect.        

When the Aereo defendants claimed that the Court, if it sided with the plaintiffs, would chill innovation, the Court cast aside this concern while gratuitously acknowledging that Congress does not want to dissuade innovation.  Rather than undertake any substantive analysis, however, the Court merely ordained that the decision would have no adverse impact.  In justifying its determination, the Court emphasized that its ruling was limited and pointed to legislative history that the “[transmit amendment] does not determine whether different kinds of providers in different contexts also ‘perform’.”  But, this precisely what Aereo is.  A different kind of provider in a different context.   To this point, It should not go unnoticed that Court employed used car analogies and “knobs” in its decision to elucidate its technology analysis.  To prop up its finding, the Court turned to legislative history and selectively chose the history which best suited its decision.  Yet, by its own admission, it recognized that Congressional history specifically cautioned that new technology would not necessarily fall within the strictures of the retransmission amendment.    

So, how did the Aereo Court get it wrong? [iv] I would argue it simply did not understand technology to a degree necessary to appreciate the substantive technology issues in question. The Court was fumbling with and failed to grasp the concept of transmission.  A digital broadcast signal is encoded and then decoded when it is received.  This is the case with every TV with a digital receiver.  Once the signal is received, it is decoded and then “retransmitted” across a bus (a carrier) to a processor that then runs an application or function to visually display the data on a screen.  Aereo is simply distributing the same functions over space.[v]  Instead of using an internal bus, it is using the internet to deliver the signal to a computer viewer.  It is as if Aereo removed the box around the TV, and then separated and spread its components over distance and then reconnected the components with very long wires.  Is their a substantive difference merely because a passive box encloses the retransmission function?   Or, is it that the retransmission occurs within some undefined proximity to a viewer that the Court intuitively senses but never articulated?  As for the antenna aspect, again by viewing the function, Aero is no different from a viewer that rents a TV with a digital antenna, except the viewer just rents the antenna component in the Aereo case.  Again, we come to not so much to function as much as packaging and form factor.

When viewed within a comparative functional analysis, the court is simply off base.  The only valid argument one could raise is that transmitting a signal beyond is natural extent (i.e., the receivable coverage area) is exercising a transmission right more broadly than what the content owner intended.   Considered in this light, the question must be put whether any content owner or broadcaster that permits or engages in a broadcast over licensed spectrum to the general public at large is, by the very act itself, waiving its right to select who and how viewers may receive a signal.  It is as if an author dumped an unlimited number of copies of his book into the public square with a “free as long as you don’t tear out or add pages” sign, and then complains if Mr. Smith picks a few up and delivers them to the convalescent home.   If the format is generally decodable and the medium is receivable in the public airwaves, it certainly defies logic that a one-to-one re-transmission does anything more than the original act itself, assuming the viewer had the ability to or ought to have received the signal to start with. But the Court never reaches this level of inquiry in its decision.

Even assuming that Aero was engaged in something analogous to CCTV, the next question is what substantive harm has occurred if the content is unchanged and the content is broadcast for free.  If anything, the act of retransmission in unadulterated form advances the commercial interests of the broadcaster and owner.  It could be argued that the broadcaster suffers harm because the presentation has a particular placement in a series of presentations whereby if the presentation in question is not seen in series it diminishes its value.  This argument would be specious at best, because viewers have the unfettered ability to change channels, nor has any broadcaster attempted to impose a license condition that requires a viewer to be tethered to a channel for a series of programs.  Quite the opposite.  Each “show” is advertised and promoted as a separate work or performance such that no broadcaster adds any transformative value by showing a series of shows in any particular combination.      

Further, to the extent retransmission reaches a larger set of eyes and delivers the original advertising, it seems inexplicable how any broadcaster can claim harm.  If anything, retransmission furthers the economic interests of the broadcaster, and thus the owner of the work.  If the answer is “just because the owner is the copyright holder”, then the question must be whether there is a legally and morally sufficient basis to warrant the chilling of innovation when there is no readily apparent harm.   To this point, it is granted that an artist can control the distribution of his works.  For example, a private painting made for a person or special viewing may very well warrant protection because it was created with the specific purpose of a limited distribution.  The limited or private distribution is part of the original work itself.  It has a creative intimacy in its purpose.   On the other hand, by allowing broad public dissemination of a work to any and all who might view it, the work has lost its intimacy with its creator and there can be no compelling reason why it should be controlled as long as it does not cause economic harm. 

As technology accelerates and provides increasingly more ways in which viewers may receive, view, interpret, interact and enhance works, the courts need to recognize that technology is forcing courts to dig deeper into the substantive nature of intellectual property and understand precisely what is protectable and why a work is protected.  Simply dithering and fudging around the edges with narrow holdings and vague notions does not advance the interests of society, and harms innovation and creativity because of uncertainty.   They create vast uncertainty, because it is impossible to distill any rational boundaries that can be applied by a technologist. 

Our judiciary is in desperate need of qualified jurists with a sound understanding of technology, otherwise the ingenuity and creativity that drives our economy will suffer in the morass of legal uncertainty. 

Disclosure:  The author has no direct or indirect interest in Aereo or any party related or affiliated with Aereo.

[i]  American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2498 (2014) (Web Link:
[iii] See, discussion of general expertise of judges:
[iv] See, Copyright: ABC, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., 128 Harv. L. Rev. 371 (Nov. 2014), for an interesting discussion of “purposivism and textualism”.
[v] Id. Some describe this as raising uncertainty with “cloud” implementations.  Again, it misses the point.  Even the NIST definition of what a cloud service is ambiguous at best.  See, NIST Special Publication 800-146 which contemplates hybrid implementations.  An understanding of how technology is doing a function is essential as what it is doing in any substantive analysis, because the "how" informs the "what." 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ebola - A Global Terror Vector

This is a copy of an article submitted to the Yale Global Health Review in February, 2014 for publication.  It was never published.  This paper was a self study project undertaken by my daughter.  With the current emerging global Ebola crisis, this information is too important not to release to the web.  YGHR missed the boat on a critical global health issue. 

Joe Mazzarella 
Global Health Risks of Non-state Transnational Terror
Grace Mazzarella
January, 2014

In September of 2000, the United Nations, through its member states, agreed on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  The MDGs are a series of goals aimed at making measurable improvements in alleviating worldwide poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women within a 15 year period.  Since its adoption, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that great strides have been in the intervening years.[1]  These gains are the result of concerted governmental and non-governmental programmatic efforts.   Despite this progress, these gains are vulnerable to being undermined by both well-known and less well-known and understood emerging systemic threats.  One of these less well-known and understood threats is the emerging systemic risks associated with the agents and causes of geopolitical conflict.   In the area of global health, the new paradigm of multinational, non-state sponsored terrorism represents a significant and growing risk factor with unique challenges for the world health community.   

Most state efforts to combat terrorism are motivated by a desire to prevent acts of terrorism and their immediate impacts, namely the indiscriminate loss of life and injury to civilians and noncombatant personnel.   While acts of terrorism catch worldwide media attention, terror groups can have significantly greater far reaching and lasting effects through sustained low intensity conflict.  Terror in itself is not the objective for terrorist groups inasmuch as it is to create conditions of increasing civil instability to achieve various ends.  These ends are often political, ethnic and/or religious in nature.  As a consequence, civilian populations are often targeted based upon on their ethnic and religious composition and political alignments.  For the ideological modern terrorist, the objective is to inflict not only death, but to instigate mass displacement and removal of objectionable segments of the civil population.  This, in turn, creates enclaves of control to stage, assemble and support larger operations with the intent of further challenging incumbent government forces, disrupting national systems of civilian and military support, such as commerce and transportation routes and utility infrastructure, and creating successively greater instability within the state.   These strategies and mass displacement effects have been observed in a variety of conflicts including Iraq, Syria and the Sudan.
Focusing on Syria, one needs to only consider the scale of humanitarian tragedy occurring in Syria to understand the scope and nature of this problem.    As of the writing of this Article, the United Nations High Commissioner Refugees (UNHCR), reports that over 2.3 Million refugees have been displaced from their Syrian homes as a result of ongoing civil war, and it is predicated that the refugee population could reach 4 Million if the conflict continues along it present course.[2]  Despite its political characterization, the greater reality is that the Syrian civil war is being fueled by an influx of multinational Islamic fighters, many of which are aligned with known terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and external state sponsors of terrorism like Iran.[3] Beyond the effects of conventional fighting between insurgents and government forces, civilian populations have been brutalized by numerous reported attacks of barbarity designed to terrorize and incite mass civilian departure.  In one of many similar reported incidents, on January 17, 2014, Al-Qaeda insurgents reportedly overran the western-backed Free Syrian Army held town of Jarabulus located in Northern Syria.  Al-Qaeda fighters then initiated an indiscriminate killing spree, murdering men, woman and children.   Among their heinous acts, over hundred men were rounded up and Al-Qaeda fighters began slaughtering them, including beheading their victims and posting heads on spikes.  As a result of this terror, nearly 1,000 civilians fled for the safety in Turkey.[4]   Syria’s civilians, much like in other recent modern terror infused conflicts, are suffering extreme and indiscriminate brutality which is driving mass population displacement.

But Syria is not unique.  In many of today’s conflicts around the globe, terrorist organizations operate to destabilize government institutions by sowing fear and insecurity among the populace, and eroding the will and capacity of government institutions to carry-out the delivery of basic services.[5]  Whether one begets the other is open for debate, however it is generally recognized that terror groups tend to coalesce and root themselves in places where governments are politically weak and have failing civil institutions.  Cases on point include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Indonesia and Yemen, among others.[6]  In fact, the number of displaced person has risen year over year and reached its highest since 1994 with an estimated 45 Million refugees, and the UNHCR reports that vast percentage of refugees are arising within the aforementioned countries.[7] As non-state actors foment civil unrest and spread terror, large civilian displacement becomes a major pandemic disease vector that has broad regional and global implications.
By way of example, the Syrian war has given rise to an outbreak of polio, a disease that has been effectively eradicated from most of the global community, save a few, through decades of vaccination efforts.  Prior to the conflict, the last reported case of polio in Syria was reported in 1995.  In November of 2013, the WHO raised an alarm with an outbreak of up to 37 confirmed cases of polio. [8]    As result, a massive immunization effort has been launched to stem the outbreak.  Nonetheless, this in turn has raised fears that there is high risk of a polio outbreak in Europe given that large numbers of Syrian refuges may begin to migrate from temporary camps in neighboring countries to Europe as they search for better living conditions.[9]
Other places where polio has gained a foothold through disease importation include the African horn nation of Somalia, which is home to a nominally functioning government and numerous terror camps.  Other countries of polio importation, as reported by the WHO, include several African countries with terror based insurgencies such as Niger, Mali and the Congo.[10]  Meanwhile, the countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria remain polio endemic.  All of these locations share another common thread besides polio.  They are each suffering from ongoing conflict spurred by endemic terror groups operating within their borders are main drivers of forcible displacement.
 Overall, the Syrian conflict serves as a powerful example of the role that non-sate terror organizations play in breeding conditions for global health emergencies and potential pandemics.  While the twentieth century was occasioned by state conflicts, the twenty-first century has given rise to a new form of non-state entity conflict that is transnational in nature.  Hallmarked by internal destabilization, these forces operate to sow political instability and fear among the populace and ignite civil strife.   Unlike traditional sovereign conflicts, the ability for world organizations to reach into and operate in these conflict areas to stem global health emergencies is often hampered due to non-existent diplomatic functions and no reliable or formal command and control leadership capable of brokering necessary conditions of security and safety for non-combatant relief workers.   In Syria, the effort to provide humanitarian relief has been thwarted in many cases and nation-states have been unable to provide consistent meaningful humanitarian aid.[11]
In the emerging reality of geopolitical conflicts characterized by non-state terror groups, it is possible that global health emergencies may be exploited as another tactic to create large scale destabilization and fear.  In this vein, while seemingly remote, it is not unreasonable to assume that terror groups could seek to spread highly contagious diseases in target populations through one or more terrorist cells.  In essence, the dynamics of population displacement, nonfunctional health delivery systems, and access to contagious diseases becomes a vehicle for biological warfare, or coined another way its own weapon of mass destruction (WMD).  While polio would be an unlikely candidate due to mass vaccination, infectious diseases such as the hemorrhagic Ebola or Marburg viruses could be used to create a large scale pandemic with a small team of sickly volunteers. Further, proximate access to and vectors for movement by a multinational terror organization are present because they are coincident with terror endemic areas, notably the Sudan, Uganda (bordering South Sudan) and Democratic Republic of Congo.[12]  These viruses can be opportunistically identified in the population and then intentionally passed from a host to willing conspirators. Placing “ground zero” patients inside of highly dense refugee camps along and infecting several disparate international targets has the potential to create global impacts that could overwhelm response systems and resources.  This tactic, albeit crude by today’s standards, has a historical precedent within North America when British forces used infected blankets of small pox to eradicate Native Indians during the French Indian Wars.[13]
More generally, non-state controlled areas with largely collapsed or inoperative healthcare systems and large refugee populations present conditions for pandemic outbreaks that can impact local, regional and global security.   This risk requires collaboration and attention among not only world health authorities but political and policy leaders, security experts and institutions of research and higher learning in order to create the necessary programs to monitor, identify, respond to and mitigate these hazards.    As the world community makes progress towards its MDGs, it is important that it recognize emerging changes in geopolitical dynamics and be prepared to adapt its programs and strategies to counter their associated risks. 

[1] United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2013, 1 July 2013, ISBN 978-92-1-101284-2, available at:
[2] Syria Regional Refugee Response, UNHCR Interagency Information Sharing Portal –Regional Overview, Web. 20 Jan. 2014 (
[3]  Laub, Zachary, and Masters. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a. Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria)." Council on Foreign Relations, March 2013.
[4] Hunter, Isabel, Al-Qaeda slaughters on Syria's killing fields, AL Jazeera Online (January 21, 2014) (
[5] Audrey Cronin, Ending Terrorism – Lessons for Defeating Al Qaeda, International Institute for Strategic Studies (Adelphi Paper 393, 2008), Ch. 1.
[6] National Counter Terrorism Center, Counterterrorism Calendar 2014 – Interactive Map, Web, accessed January 22, 2014 (
[7] UNHCR-Global Trends Report 2012, Displacement-The New 21st Century Challenge, June 19, 2013 (
[8] Global Alert and Response, World Disease News, Polio in the Syrian Arab Republic – update, World Health Organization (November 23, 2013), Web (
[9] Eichner &Brockmann, Polio emergence in Syria and Israel endangers Europe, The Lancet,  Volume 382, Issue 9907, Page 1777, 30 November 2013 (Elsevier Ltd, pub. online November 8, 2013,
[10] Polio Global Eradication Initiative Annual Report 2012, World Health Organization (WHO, Geneva, March 2013). (
[11] Blanchard, Humud & Nikitin, Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and US Response, Congressional Research Service, Rel. RL33487, January 14, 2014 (avail., 10. “As with humanitarian assistance, U.S. efforts to support local security and service delivery efforts to date have been hindered by a lack of regular access to areas in need. According to Administration officials, border closures, ongoing fighting, and risks from extremist groups have presented unique challenges.”
[12] CDC, Known Cases and Outbreaks of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever in Chronological Order, Web, accessed January 23, 2014, and CDC, Known Cases and Outbreaks of Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever, in Chronological Order, Web, accessed January 23, 2014. (
[13] F. Fenner et al., The History of Small Pox and its Spread Around the World, (Geneva, WHO, 1988): 239.] See, also, Sheldon J. Watts, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (Yale University Press, 1999) for a comprehensive exposition on the geopolitical impacts and epidemics in the Western world.