In January, British troops conducting raids on insurgents in Basra, Iraq, found printouts of aerial maps from Google Earth detailing the coordinates for British camps in the area. Though dated, the maps revealed the locations of buildings, tents, and other vulnerable areas of British forces. A week or so after the discovery, and after negotiations with the British government, Google (GOOG) reportedly replaced the geospatial pictures found by insurgents—taken in 2004—with images taken in 2002, prior to the invasion by coalition forces.
But the discovery of the maps underscores how insurgents appear to be a step ahead of us in utilizing our own technologies against our troops and allies. More fundamentally, it highlights a shortcoming of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq. One of the Bush Administration's aims was to provide computing and Internet technology for the general Iraqi population. Almost four years into the war, this goal remains largely unfulfilled. Of course, meeting the public's basic needs for safety and other liberties remains paramount. Yet the role of technology in the reconstruction of Iraq's economy, education, and civil society should not be disregarded.
Indeed, the Bush Administration made plain its understanding of technology's value to Iraqis early on. In May, 2003, soon after the war began, Alan Larson, Defense Dept. Under Secretary for Economic, Business & Agricultural Affairs, testified before the House International Relations Committee regarding administration plans for postconflict Iraq. "Today we face a challenge in restoring basic communications within Iraq," Larson said. "However, we know that improvements in connectivity can and must develop quickly to facilitate increasing economic activity. Iraq has been largely shut out of the Internet age—as more Iraqis gain access to the Internet, we will explore ways to use technology to expand the public's access to information."
In October of that year, U.S. Presidential Envoy to Iraq Paul Bremer, in a discussion of rebuilding efforts, pointed to the importance of Internet connectivity for Iraqi citizens. He said before the war there were 4,500 Internet connections and important services such as instant messaging were forbidden. "Today, there are already more Internet connections—we estimate 4,900," Bremer said at the time, adding that the U.S. expected 50,000 connections by the beginning of 2004.
But as of September, 2006, Internet World Stats reported that 0.1% of the Iraqi population—about 36,000 people—were Internet users. Presumably, more than one person uses a single connection. But even if, for the sake of argument, each person is using a single connection, the September statistics suggest there are 14,000 fewer connections than the Administration hoped for three years ago.
What the numbers don't indicate is what percentage of these users are insurgents or terrorists. The Google find, combined with Internet usage reports, reveals that the plan to implement more technology in Iraq has empowered insurgents and left noninsurgents vastly behind. As we endeavor to provide tools such as Internet connectivity, it would be futile to attempt to keep the technology out of insurgents' hands. Rather, we must focus on adversaries who have Internet technology and keep ahead of their potential negative uses. And we should do more to empower the vast majority of Iraqis with technology tools of their own.
A Wi-Fi Education
Because of the escalating violence in many Iraqi cities, school attendance is reportedly the lowest it has been since the coalition invasion in 2003. Education is a major and necessary component for economic development, so alternative plans must be made available to the Iraqi population before they become disenfranchised. If Internet access were more widely available in Iraq, online and distance learning programs could be implemented and utilized. This would enable children and adults to progress even while trapped inside their homes.
Many Iraqis desire the Internet, especially now when so many of their days are spent in their homes under curfew. Indicators show that for the few Iraqis who have online access, it is quickly becoming their connection to the world. It is also enabling them to stay in touch with a few of their friends and family, whom they are otherwise unable to see because of the extreme security conditions.
Wi-Fi is emerging in remote locations across the globe to connect people, and it might provide a fast and viable solution to the connectivity issue in Iraq. It would enable Iraqis to forgo traditional infrastructure build-out, lower costs to create a platform, and increase productivity. Further, it would give Iraqis access to the online world while they endure the challenges and security threats in the world immediately outside their doors. Finally, a Wi-Fi program in Iraq could position the country as a global leader in technology use.
Modern technology being used for both good and bad poses a dilemma that will be debated by scholars and politicians throughout the 21st century. But in this case, we can be quite certain that the British troops would prefer that pictures of their sleeping quarters not be made available online.
In March, 2006, President Bush made clear the U.S. commitment to creating technologies to combat the improvised explosive device threat. He pledged to put "the best technologies in the hands of our men and women on the front lines." At a minimum, we owe our soldiers the best technologies available as the primary focus; it should also be reasonable, though, to assume that the Administration is protecting those men and women on the front lines by anticipating how our adversaries might apply basic and widely available technologies to harm them. Sometimes the most simple or obvious tools prove the most lethal.
The government's use of and attitude toward technology are important, and adversarial applications of technology should be anticipated and impeded. At the same time, we should be more creative in devising methods by which technologies are used to benefit our interests and those of the Iraqis. Technology is essential for economic development, inclusion, education, socialization, and communication—vital ingredients that will interact and lead toward the eventual goal of a stronger and more economically stable Iraq.