​The Austin Bomber & the Race Over 5G - Threats in Our Connected World

Who was Mark Conditt? The apparent Austin bomber was a home-schooled and church-going kid raised in Pflugerville, a suburb of Austin. No possible motive is anywhere in site, but apparently there was some sort of confession. So the media is sure to dig through the details of Conditt’s life and try to see what went wrong, what drove him to the evil acts he undertook.

But there's another aspect to these bombings that is also frightening. IET's are something that are relatively easy to build and compared to the years when Ted Kaczynski often used the mail to send his packages, today in our world of supply-chain economics, sending stuff around the country and the world is trivial, trite and cheap. Whether it's a gift or a bomb.

As Ben Domenech warns:

Sometimes we pay too much attention to the massive theoretical threats and too little attention to those that are currently much easier to exact. I recently attended a very interesting event focused on robotics and autonomous micro-drones as methods of attack on major assets - ports, for instance - and those are certainly worth being concerned about given the technological trajectory. But it's just as concerning to imagine a small group of terror-minded individuals putting bombs in Amazon boxes along school bus routes and waiting.

This could have happened before and may happen again. We can't shut down our connected world, but old-fashioned physical security with as much sophisticated high-tech support as is necessary, will need to be part of someone like Amazon's operations, and those of many other corporations as well.

At the same time, something like this is a statistically rare event, as horrible as the past week has been for the people of Austin. There are very few Mark Conditts in the world, thank God.

But what about micro-drones as Domenech mentions? What of the other end of the spectrum in our connected world?

It seems that what drove President Trump to veto Singapore-based Broadcom's attempted takeover of Qualcomm was the fear that Broadcom would impose cost-cutting measures on Qualcomm and undercut it's R&D on its chips that go into most smartphones today. That would then cut the lead in 5G technology that America, through companies like Qualcomm, currently enjoys and would mean that China would be one step closer to parity in technology. And the tech race with China matters.

On China's side you have massive spending through state-controlled or state-influenced companies and other entities including the military. While in America the balance of innovation tends to be on the private sector side. To keep winning this race, America needs a long-term strategy that's light on government involvement but strong on keeping innovation incentivized in America. As Helen Raleigh points out that also means that companies in America need to think beyond the next quarter when caving in to China's demands, the way Apple, Google, Yahoo, and others have.

Because if Huawei ends up being the leader in 5G technology and smartphones around the world have Chinese-made chips. And China continues its emergence as a major drone manufacturer. And Amazon imports all those drones for happy consumers in America and elsewhere. You can then paint a scary scenario with local, dangerous micro-attacks emerging anywhere anytime.

Or at the other end of the spectrum, some madman puts a simple home-made IED into a package and couriers it somewhere.

Both these types of attacks work because most of us are reasonably trustworthy and we trade and exchange and deal and talk and argue and joke with each other, often with that other somewhere far away. We will have to accept the fact that our connected world has new risks that may come in rather old fashioned packages. My apologies for that metaphor to those who have suffered so greatly in Austin. But these are risks we have to face, in order to keep ourselves safe from terror, wherever that terror comes from.

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