Information control in a connected world

In 1973 in Stockholm a bank robbery went wrong and resulted in a six day hostage situation when the police showed up and the would be robbers withdrew into the vault with four hostages. The police managed to enter the bank and close the vault door. The police then opened a hole in the vault roof in order to communicate with those inside (short piece on Wikipedia). While in the vault the hostages began to fear the police and sympathize with their captors in a psychological process which has come to be known as the Stockholm Syndrome. But I digress.

An interesting factor was the way in which communications took place. The authorities (including the Prime Minister) and criminals communicated via telephone. The robbers inside the vault had no way of monitoring the outside world or communicating with it freely.

Now fast forward to Mumbai last week. According to Gizmondo the terrorists inside the hotel did not rely on traditional communications methods

Commandos were not only surprised to find the devices [BlackBerrys] in the terrorists’ rucksacks, but that they used the internet to look beyond local Indian media for information, watching the global reaction in real-time as well.

There is something shocking, and at the same time predictable, about the authorities naivete about the terrorists use of technology. Why wouldn’t a terrorist be monitoring the outside world for reactions?

In addition to this the way in which the outside world understood what was happening inside the hotel was not a traditional news source controlled and transferred by authorities. In a hallway conversation Martin Börjesson (a colleague) and I exchanged notes about our news uptake from the Mumbai attacks. Naturally we used traditional media Рbut neither of us believed that they really knew anything. More interestingly we followed news feeds such as twitter and a flock of blogs (or what is the right word?)

Following blogs is something both Martin and I do everyday so we were not surprised by this. What was interesting however was the experience that some online sources were clearly political disinformation attempting to place the blame for what was happening at the door of different states. (Bruce Schneier has some interesting takes on the outside conversations and analysis). Clearly following live feeds is also demands a questioning of sources.

Mumbai has shown that web technology is used: (1) by the terrorists (2) by the world (3) by the media. The result is an amazing mix of rehashing of information, the transmitting of live experiences (from within and from those witnessing) and formal channels. The question is can, and should, the authorities be able to control this information? The first answer is that controlling this information is only possible at a great cost and at a great loss in the ability of others to transmit innocent information. It is doubtful whether a media blackout is at all possible. Should it be possible – not sure. As the BlackBerry’s show the terrorists monitored the outside world and possibly profited from the information, but would the outcome have been much different if they did, or could, not?

Information control is not dead but it is being taken to a new level… to be continued…