Knowledge to the People! How the Information Revolution Offers Both Power and Peril

By CTU Faculty

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Information RevolutionOne of the many interesting facets of the Technological Revolution that we are living through (and particularly the changes in the context of the advent of computerization and the Internet) is that this revolution is creating a democratization of information, access and power. Never before in human history has so much information and access to others been available to the average person. The spread of movable type and the printing press in 15th-century Europe arguably represented the first “Information Revolution,” followed by the development of the telegraph in the early to mid-19th century, the rise of radio and motion pictures in the early 20th century, and the development of television in the mid-20th century. All of these technological breakthroughs provided people with unprecedented access to information. Gone were the days when news and ideas spread slowly by letter or messenger, and much of humanity was blissfully unaware of what was going on five miles away, let alone across the world. At the same time, these information revolutions were largely one-way in the sense that a small, elite cadre of publishers, journalists, radio broadcasters, movie studio executives, and TV executives were providing information to increasing numbers of people with the average person unable to disseminate his/her knowledge or ideas.

Log on to Lobby

Today’s Information Revolution can be distinguished from previous ones not only in terms of the scope of information provided and the tremendous numbers of people given access to that information, but also in the sense that, for the first time, anyone can push out his/her own information and ideas to a growing global audience via Internet-based vehicles, such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blog sites, personal websites, etc. This has resulted in a democratization of access to both information and ideas. 

While government policy is not decided via the Web, the Internet is a powerful tool that helps mold public opinion and thus impacts political leaders. Internet activism is already an important part of democratic politics, and it influences everything from U.S. presidential campaigns to uprisings in the Arab world. The Internet is also increasingly being used to design policy and strategy. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, is using the Internet to query homeland security professionals as to their respective priorities and outlooks as part of the process of creating the next Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, a major strategy document that helps define DHS policy and set out the Department’s priorities. It is certainly conceivable, once legal and security issues are addressed, that democratic countries will shift to online voting, thus giving people yet another opportunity to take advantage of this Information Revolution in order to try and influence politics and policy.

The Downside to Democratization

All in all, these developments are very positive and empowering, but they also have a negative side because they provide criminals and extremists greater access to information and people and thus the ability to gain actionable intelligence to target people or facilities, as well as influence and radicalize vulnerable people.

A few examples: In today’s world, anyone using the Internet can access things, such as live webcams or satellite imagery that can help in planning terrorist attacks or criminal activity. Background information on individuals targeted by criminals or terrorists is also readily obtained via the Internet, including home addresses and cell phone numbers, which can be used to monitor one’s location. And, of course, the Internet can be used to hack into bank accounts or personal, governmental or corporate files, etc. In addition, the Internet has become one of the primary vehicles for radicalization and allows extremists based in failed states overseas to radicalize young people in the West, provide them with information about how to launch attacks, and encourage them to become terrorists. Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the United States killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, was a very effective Internet-based radicalizer, and groups, such as al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah, regularly use websites, chat rooms, online videos and other tools in order to radicalize people. 

The current Information Revolution is still new, and we can expect it to continue to transform human life in astounding and positive ways. Information is no longer the preserve of the few, and pushing out ideas and influencing people is no longer limited to politicians, journalists, broadcasters and pundits. At the same time, information and ideas are a double-edged sword: along with the positive aspects of this change, we must recognize, and hopefully prepare for and mitigate, the negative aspects.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jannis Blume