Mobile Opportunities

Last week, Andy Cochran, wisely urged the incoming administration to develop the legal and institutional capabilities needed to deal with mobile banking. There is no question that terrorists and criminals will demonstrate tremendous creativity in stealing from mobile banking or cel-phone payment systems or using these new technologies to transfer and launder money. Time and again, the Internet being only the latest example, terrorists and criminals have shown themselves extraordinarily talented at adapting the newest technology to their nefarious needs.

But just as important is developing a framework to police this new technology is the maddening question of why we (that is the United States and other agencies charged with counter-terror missions worldwide) cannot be as creative or quick to take advantage of these technologies.

An Army Captain friend told me (this was several years ago) that training the Iraqi military was bedeviled by Iraq’s lack of a modern banking system. Recruits, unsurprisingly, had signed up to receive a salary. But because Iraq had no banking system, they had to hitchhike home in order to support their families. It was during these trips that the soldiers became vulnerable to kidnappings and executions. Presumably this problem has been ameliorated, but it is easy to see how a mobile banking system could have been extremely helpful in this situation.

Whatever ills will result from mobile banking, they will also be an enormous boon to people worldwide and could be an important tool for counter-terrorism and related development issues. Throughout the developing world, even where Internet access is extremely limited, mobile technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, sparking a revolution on a par with the Internet revolution experienced in the developing world. (See this New York Times Magazine article on how cel-phone makers are hiring globetrotting anthropologists to study how people use their mobiles to get a sense of the scale of this technological shift.)

Mobile banking could ease the delivery of aid in disaster situations and be a boon to development programs in general. This is not to spark the debate over whether poverty causes terrorism, that link is tenuous. But poverty does contribute to instability that can create safe havens for terrorists and criminal cartels. Besides which, effective development and disaster relief policies are good public diplomacy as well as being morally just.

There are other potential positives to the increasing availability of mobile technology. What are the U.S. public diplomacy efforts in the mobile space? It could be a valuable sphere of operations. In many cases phones are shared by extended families, so the individuals with the most access are also at the center of their social networks. A mobile public diplomacy campaign could reach the opinion shapers on the grassroots level. It is also an interactive media, unlike radio, so that public diplomacy programs could receive instantaneous feedback. Finally, public diplomacy agencies could purchase airtime in bulk and reward its audience with free airtime (effectively a two-for-one combining an information campaign with an aid program.)

The legal and forensic aspects of mobile banking do require attention. But policy-makers and analysts need to view new technologies as opportunities to do good. Unfortunately, getting ahead of the bad guys, or at least keeping up with them is never an easy task. This ongoing challenge calls to mind something Kurt Vonnegut wrote in The Sirens of Titan:

There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil.
The triumph of anything is a matter of organization.
If there are such things as angels, hope that they are
organized along the lines of the Mafia.

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