While you were enjoying a relaxing Thanksgiving last year, surrounded by friends and family, eating way too much turkey and mashed potatoes, Jesse Korff was figuring out a new way to distill a biological toxin called abrin so he could sell it to terrorists.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even a small dose of abrin is lethal to humans, and can cause death within 36 to 72 hours. Abrin is what is known as a “select agent.” Select agents are a subset of biological toxins that the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture have determined have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. Similar to ricin, death by abrin usually comes from a severe allergic reaction that causes difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
There is no antidote.
In a message from Thanksgiving 2013, Korff wrote:
Korff, a 19 year-old from Glades County, Florida, used something called “Darknet”, to sell his product to the highest bidder. Luckily for us, in this case, instead of someone who would do harm, it was the FBI.
But what if it hadn’t been? What if I told you that anyone who has access to a computer, mobile phone, or an iPad can purchase biological weapons like abrin, as well as other illicit goods like child pornography, guns, missile systems, credit card numbers, and identity documents, with only the click of a mouse?
I’m a believer in the value of technology. It fascinates me, and I have made understanding it a central part of my career. Technology has truly made my life more productive and engaging. My mobile device knows who I am, where I visit, what I do, and who my friends are. It helps me navigate my life, keeping me in touch with friends and family, and broadening my view of the world by connecting me with cultures and people around the globe.
However, based on my experiences working with a number of government agencies and other public and private organizations, there is a seedy underbelly to technology. And it is only a click or two away.
Most people are familiar with websites like Google, Yahoo, Bing, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the thousands of other sites and blogs maintained by individuals, media outlets, and companies. This is called the “Surface Web” and it’s what most people think of as the Internet. Darknet is one of the the deepest and, perhaps, strangest parts of the Internet. It is a vast “underground” that the majority of the American public doesn’t know exists. Darknet is estimated to be more than 500 times larger, based on content, than the Surface Web. And, like the deepest parts of ocean, it is home to a myriad of strange, bizarre communities.
What makes this all possible? How do drug traffickers, child sex traffickers, hitmen, and other criminals have the ability to market their products and services through the Internet?
It’s based primarily on two advances in technology: anonymity software like Tor, and digital currency. Combined, these two technologies enable anonymous communications and pseudonymous transfers of money and allow for the concealment of identity. As a result, those wishing to sell illicit items and those wishing to buy them are assured of a relatively safe, surreptitious manner in which to conduct business.
For most of my career, I have chased crooks, terrorists, and hackers through the hidden places of the Internet. From drug dealers and gun runners to organized transnational crime groups, I’ve seen just about every disgusting thing the Internet has to offer. Stuff that would make a billy goat puke. But, I’ve also experienced the wonderfully beautiful freedom it offers people around the planet. The democratizing effect it has in leveling public discourse about global political issues. I’ve seen firsthand the uplifting, affirming impact it has had on subcultures that have a limited voice. And it is delightful. Sublime. All of it. The awful and the marvelous.
We are at an inflection point in our use of technology. We can either ignore the consequences of its creation (and suffer), or embrace a preventative posture to its development that will positively shape our technological future.
If you've ever heard me speak, you've heard me mention that we shape technologies and they shape us. Look how reliant we’ve become on our cell phones. I have an Android device. On that device I have an application called Google Now. Google Now reads my Gmail. It knows who my favorite bands are because I purchase all of my music through Google and it knows what songs I listen to most frequently. It knows my location twenty four hours a day because I never turn my phone off (or GPS). It knows all the movies I watch because I purchase all my movies through Google Play. It knows the locations of my office and home because I’ve programmed them into Google Maps. It knows all of my web searches. And it shares those queries across all my devices so that Google Now knows every search I’ve ever made on my laptop, mobile phone, and tablet.
As a result, Google Now tells me about things before I ask it. When I step off a plane, my cell phone tells me that my favorite band is playing at a microbrewery nearby. And it knows to tell me it is a microbrewery based on my search history. Google Now tells me when my flights are delayed or canceled before the airline does. Probably most frightening (and it’s because I don’t know how Google does this) my cell phone tells me fifteen minutes before I leave work that there is traffic on my normal route and that I should take a different route. How does it know when I’m leaving work?
Recently, I bought a Nest. Nest is a digital thermostat for your home. It “learns” as you adjust the temperature so that your home is heated and cooled in the most eco-friendly way. It is connected to the wireless network in my home and I can control it via my cell phone from anywhere in the world. Google just purchased Nest. Soon Google Now will also know the temperature in my home and when I am in the house (Nest has a motion sensor built in).
My point is that I will happily give up certain aspects of my privacy because I want the convenience that Google Now gives me. It knows what I’m going to ask before I ask it. And I love it. But I love it even though I know what I’m giving up. My fear is that most of the technology-using public doesn’t.