I was fortunate to attend a lecture delivered by Jared Cohen today at the New York City’s Bar Association. He has worked for the State Department under both Rice and Clinton, a good four years, before recently defecting to the private sector to direct Google Ideas. I have no idea what Google Ideas is (are?) as he offered no clues but my capacity of intrigue was fully satisfied by what Cohen had to say about how cell phones, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook and, oddly, Bluetooth have affected the good guy, the bad guy and the little guy of the world over the past several years. I understand this all you’re seeing right now is tl;dr but pay attention, it’s worth it.
On one of his trips to Iran he took a tour of a prison to observe and interview inmates to see what’s doing with them and how they’re doing it on a hunch that it had something to do with radio waves. He discovered that these men had all sorts of communications equipment, cell phones, antennas, books probably containing many phone numbers, some Qurans and a bad attitude ideologically about the West. He realized that even in a prison those who are so inclined can organize and lead large groups of people thanks to today’s technology, an unnerving revelation. This man has no qualms interviewing Iranian prisoners, questions including What’s your life story, Did your dad drink and beat you to try to identify what he sees as a pattern among extremists that leads them to and accounts for their extremity. Now and then for the hell of it he’s been known to ask a Jihadist prisoner What’s your phone number to which he actually gets answers, probably because the prisoners wanted to see the look on his face when they recited their number to a government agent.
I once read a Slashdot article on how terrorists can use the iPhone to take down cell networks which, according to Cohen, was among these men’s phones of choice, though I suspect the two are incidental. Cohen ain’t afraid of tracking down militant-looking people to ask such questions, one group of which thought strapping a suicide bombing vest onto him in their cache full o’ more vests, automatic weapons and RPGs, and grabbing the detonation trigger would be funny, a goof, though the joke fell flat on Cohen who characterized their behavior as categorically inappropriate. Loosen up, Cohen!
He took a tour of some university to do the same but with students. Turns out that in Middle Eastern countries, Bluetooth has grown as a popular, convenient, unstoppable and an effective method of communication even with its limited range by using peer to peer routing software. That’s innovative, one of his primary points – the last guys you’d expect, like prisoners or some kids in a country in which most of you wouldn’t be caught dead, are the ones taking the fullest advantage they can come up with with technology. IBM and Motorola with whom he spoke after this trip had no idea, they thought they were just helping people talk and drive. When the rabble rousers lose control and the government takes down cellular networks, there’s nothing they can do about these underground Bluetooth networks which are wide enough to cross boarders somehow the content of the messages make their way onto the Internet where many people summarily tune into it. I wish he’d have spoken more about this Bluetooth software, the technical side of how it works, but he just didn’t have the right audience for that. Actually I’d bet he and I were the only two in the room who knew what SMS stood for, not sure why he kept throwing it around, but it’s hard to speak about technology for an hour with people twice your age without letting anything fly over their heads.
He remarked that the majority of Muslims are, like him, under thirty years old whereas their authorities were on the other side of the barrier of technological intuition and acumen which is what he attributed to the youths of various countries’ recruiting and rallying their troops using something as common and public as Facebook groups and Twitter without their governments having any clue for years, to in one month rally up millions of people for demonstrations across the world. He’s seen police corruption and delinquency dramatically fall with the introduction of text to speech (most of them can’t read) banking over SMS, one of the positive examples of what technology like this contributes to the world. He switched gears to disaster relief, how communication could be vital in rounding up, for example, people in law enforcement across the world who speak a certain language to go into the next Haiti though in response to one lady’s question about whether there should be some hierarchy of information dissemination that leads up to a federally-controlled summit Cohen said no, that the Bluetooth model is the only way to go. Sorry I can’t elaborate why, didn’t think I’d need a notepad for this thing.
That was the motif of the lecture, bouncing from a negative to a positive example and looping through that. Communication, foreign politics and extremism fascinates the hell out of Cohen and he is certainly an authority with a wealth of valuable knowledge he shared with our government and its allies during his tenure at the State Department.
Which leads us to Wikileaks, a topic which he’d accurately predicted would emerge in the Q&A section. Cohen stressed that what PFC Manning did and what Assange et al have been doing is “100% espionage.” He fervently, sincerely and effectively drilled into the audience, including me, that the leaks are an asset upon which terrorists are without a doubt capitalizing in order to kill more effectively and that the information, even with all the XXXXs and all the prudence the New York Times can contribute in their participation with the confidential free-for-all, may already be or will soon lead to people dying. Cohen, again, a veteran of the State Department with jet setting experiences in countries and their embassies across the world — though not a politician, a champion of open source platforms and presently an employee of a company that’s pretty big for the most part on transparency with little to gain by cloaking his true feelings about this activity, insisted that the damage to global diplomacy as a result of this is severe. He said that this has caused “irreparable” damage to American diplomacy. All right Cohen, you sold me.
Imagine a dull speaker reading off of notecards, you sitting there, tired, wishing time could go by faster and people would hurry it up with their dumb questions. Now imagine the extreme opposite – that’s a Jared Cohen lecture, especially if you get him going on contemporary espionage. He was explicit and concise and soon moved onto the next question which I forgot because I was curious what he’d say if I’d ask him how Google felt internally about a recent leak which strongly affirmed Google’s allegations against the Chinese government’s direction of hacking operations against American companies, but I was dressed way too casually for the occasion and didn’t want to stand up. That was very frustrating because it would have been a pretty good question. An okay question.
I’ve been to a few lectures in my day and none of them, not even John Bolton’s, hold a candle to Jared Cohen. The closest I’ve been to Cohen’s world was a day in Jakarta on our honeymoon which we only went to because her aunt somehow scored us a room at the Mandarin Oriental (the Cadillac of hotels). I hated Jakarta, everything except the hotel. Couldn’t step outside without paranoia gripping me. I felt like I was in a forest at night surrounded by wolves staring at us with their glowing red eyes, ready to attack. Felt so good to move on over to Bali. Now, a little sightseeing in Jakarta versus hanging out in Iranian prisons, well, to avoid crassly commenting on things like balls of patriotism, I can further appreciate his service.