In Today’s Open-Source World, Low-Tech Attacks by “Other Guys” Rule

I woke up thinking about caltrops. Remember caltrops – those handy little devices scattered around by Roman cavalry to cover their retreat? Equally effective against infantry, cavalry and war elephants, caltrops are nothing more than two or more sharp nails or spines fastened together so that one of them always points upward when it lands. These 2,000-year-old ‘no tech’ weapons are thoroughly modern, too – make those spines hollow and they also work on pneumatic tires.

Now imagine a group of fun loving ‘Other Guys’ [gangs, drug cartels, insurgents, terrorist groups] with a few vans and a few thousand caltrops they knocked out over a batch of brewskis while watching Monday Night Football on the big screen.

These OGs, pissed off, perhaps, by petty resentments such as their jobs being offshored, their retirement being stolen through a hedge fund scam, or their team once again making a lousy draft choice, set off for some payback. They hit the freeways at rush hour, and liberally (though they would never use the term!) scatter their carefully crafted caltrops around Greater Metropolitan Anywhere.

Within minutes, it’s gridlock. The entire region is at a standstill. Economic damage runs into the tens (or hundreds) of millions through lost wages, lost time, lost production, tire repairs and replacement, body work and insurance claims, road crew and law enforcement / emergency crew overtime, etc., etc., etc. Collateral damage includes several dozen DOAs because medic rigs couldn’t reach victims or hospitals, shootouts resulted from super-sized road rage, and the sheer frustration and stress of it all triggered a wave of heart attacks and CVAs.

Cost to the OGs – a couple cases of Coors, 100 pounds of 16 penny nails or stout tubing, a couple of torches and a few gallons of gas.

Talk about Return on Investment.

Or . . . let’s say you’re really bad with tools and hate football, but are handy with a mouse and social networks. A techie friend points out that you don’t have to be a code poet to mount a DDoS attack on some corporate or .gov evildoer. (PayPal and the US State Department come to mind for some reason.)

You only need a few hundred or thousand friends to simultaneously log on to the targeted site and continuously hit ‘refresh’ to clog the server and crash the site. You can coordinate through tweets, texts and Facebook, and all pass ‘Go!’ at the same moment. You can hang out for hours, chatting, texting and virtually goofing together the whole time. Like, it’s community, dude.

The bottom line is, in ‘industrialized’ and well as ‘developing’ nations, people are tired of being lied to, ripped off and abused by the system. They’re threatened, angry and resentful. And while they may not be willing or capable of building an IED or flying a Cessna into a building, they can weld up a caltrop, click on a mouse, or squeeze a little Krazy Glue into the locks of the local bank that’s foreclosing on them or their neighbors.

In each case, the result is the personal satisfaction of fighting back, and disruption ranging from minimal to massive. ROI – economic and emotional – is massive in every case. (Cost of a tube of Krazy Glue: $4. Cost of a locksmith for an hour and new hardware and keys: $300. Cost of lost business and angry customers: pick a number. Watching it all while burning a couple dubes across the street in the park. Priceless.)

Now consider angry, idle, disenfranchised folks with access to modern arms, a garage ‘fab lab’, or a DNA sequencer purchased on EBay . . .

If there is to be a future for humankind that is not ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it will be based on a concept of Mutually Assured Security. (Exactly the opposite of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction that ‘guided’ US foreign policy for so long.) Our world is just too big, too fast, too interconnected, and too well armed and capable for some of us to be secure if others are in peril.

Until we recognize that ‘we’ cannot be secure unless ‘they’ are also secure, and begin to design and bring forward what John Robb of Global Guerillas calls ‘mutually beneficial templates for success’, humanity is on a fast track to the ultimate undoing.

Bigger bombs, more troops and better surveillance will not reverse this trend – they will accelerate it.

As this week’s events around WikiLeaks and the various actions, reactions and counteractions demonstrate, we’re not in Kansas any more. And that’s just the orchestra tuning. We haven’t gotten to the overture yet, much less the symphony.

Like it or not, we live in an open source world, where small groups and even individuals can successfully take on institutions and nation states with a reasonable chance of winning. ROI is on their side. They can bleed the beast until it either implodes, or lashes out, inflicts collateral damage, and draws in new opponents who can do it greater harm. In an environment like this, as the nuclear command and control computer learned in the classic 1984 movie War Games, ‘The only way to win is not to play.’

Governments around the world had better figure that out and begin to deliver genuine security, justice and prosperity for all, or leaked memos and a thumping at the ballot box will be the least of their worries.