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Thursday
Apr122012

When Cold War Was Winding Down, Could Soviet Defense Establishment Have Maintained Secrecy If Social Media Had Been Available?

 

By Dennis D. McDonald

In Web 2.0 and the Manhattan Project I speculated on the impacts modern communication, collaboration, and information sharing technologies might have had on the atomic bomb’s Manhattan Project during World War II.

I thought about these topics again while reading David E. Hoffman’s THE DEAD HAND: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE COLD WAR ARMS RACE AND ITS DANGEROUS LEGACY. That book tells the story of how the West and the Soviet Union worked on and off on serious nuclear, biological, and chemical disarmament efforts as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. 

One question that occurred while reading this disquieting book was, “Would the former Soviet Union have been able to maintain the secrecy of its nuclear and biological warfare development efforts had modern social media like Facebook and Twitter been available?”

The answer is probably not a simple “yes” or “no.”

As described by Hoffman, many senior people in the Soviet military establishment, brought up with memories of the Great Patriotic War and the post-war creation of the Iron Curtain, long resisted revealing details of their facilities and technologies, even long after The Soviet Union crumbled and it was known their efforts were in violation of treaties their own government had signed. A lot of these guys would probably have never have breathed a word even while holding a smartphone running a Twitter app.

On the other hand, Hoffman points out the serious intelligence importance of both spying and defections. Defections to the U.S. of high level Soviet scientists were especially important in revealing the location of facilities developing weaponizable disease pathogens. Would such breaches of secrecy have been accelerated given how porous social media now are?

I think the answer is “probably” though you also have to take these two factors into account:

  1. Secure information networks can be built behind firewalls with collaboration applications providing similar “social” experiences to public networks, so some of the benefits of social networking can be provided in secure environments.
  2. Social media can be used offensively to spread disinformation as well as information. Flooding the net with real sounding but bogus information is a fairly cheap tactic to employ.

Still, I don’t think that the Soviets/Russians could have maintained the tight control that was possible in pre-social media days, not because social media are inherently insecure, but because the Russians were negligent in how they managed fissionable materials and dangerous pathogens. They lacked the basic accounting and controls the West took for granted; witness their disposal of radioactive waste in deep ocean water and the incredibly insecure storage of refined uranium that Hoffman details in his book.

No amount of electronic security would have controlled the fact that the Russians were just plain sloppy in their handling of dangerous materials — sloppiness the Iranians, North Koreans, and others have probably been able to take advantage of.

Review copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald. For a list of my book reviews go here.

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