Terrorism, Tylenol, and dangerous information

Re­cently, there has been an alarm­ing de­vel­op­ment in the field of ter­ror­ist at­tacks; more and more ter­ror­ists seem to be com­mit­ting at­tacks via crash­ing ve­hi­cles, of­ten large trucks, into crowds of peo­ple. This method has sev­eral ad­van­tages for an at­tacker—it is very easy to ob­tain a ve­hi­cle, it is very difficult for po­lice to pro­tect against this sort of at­tack, and it does not par­tic­u­larly re­quire spe­cial train­ing on the part of the at­tacker.

While these at­tacks are an un­wel­come de­vel­op­ment, I would like to pro­pose an even more wor­ri­some ques­tion—why didn’t this hap­pen sooner?

I see no rea­son to be­lieve that there has been any par­tic­u­lar tech­nolog­i­cal de­vel­op­ment that has caused this method to be­come preva­lent re­cently; trucks have been in mass pro­duc­tion for over a hun­dred years. Similarly, ter­ror­ism it­self is not par­tic­u­larly new—just look to the an­ar­chist at­tacks of the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury. Why, then, weren’t truck at­tacks be­ing made ear­lier?

The an­swer, I think, is both sim­ple and fright­en­ing. The types of peo­ple who make at­tacks hadn’t thought of it yet. The main ob­sta­cle to these at­tacks was psy­cholog­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual, not phys­i­cal, and once at­tack­ers re­al­ized these meth­ods were effec­tive the num­ber of at­tacks of this sort be­gan in­creas­ing. If the Galleanists had re­al­ized this at­tack method was available, they might well have done it back in ’21 -- but they didn’t, and in­deed no­body mo­ti­vated to carry out these at­tacks seemed to un­til much later.

Another in­stance—though one with less last­ing harm—per­tains to Tylenol. In 1982, a crim­i­nal with un­known mo­tives tam­pered with sev­eral Tylenol bot­tles, poi­son­ing the cap­sules with cyanide and then re­plac­ing them on store shelves. Seven peo­ple died in the origi­nal at­tack, which caused a mass panic to the point where po­lice cars were sent to drive down the streets broad­cast­ing warn­ings against Tylenol from their loud­speak­ers; more peo­ple still were kil­led in later “copy­cat” crimes.

In this case, there was a bet­ter solu­tion than with the truck ram­mings—in the af­ter­math of these events, greatly in­creased pack­ag­ing se­cu­rity was put into place for over-the-counter med­i­ca­tions. Cap­sules (which are com­par­a­tively easy to adulter­ate) fell out of fa­vor some­what in fa­vor of tablets; fur­ther, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies be­gan putting tam­per-re­sis­tant seals on their prod­ucts and the gov­ern­ment made product tam­per­ing a fed­eral offense. Such at­tacks are now much harder to com­mit.

How­ever, the core ques­tion re­mains—why was it that it took un­til 1982 for there to be a pub­lic at­tack like this, and then there were many more (TIME claims hun­dreds!) in short suc­ces­sion? The types of peo­ple who make at­tacks hadn’t thought of it yet. Once the first at­tack and the panic around it ex­posed this vuln­er­a­bil­ity, op­por­tunis­tic at­tack­ers car­ried out their own plans, and swift ac­tion sud­denly be­came nec­es­sary—swift ac­tion to close a se­cu­rity hole that had been open for years and years!

One prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tion of this phe­nomenon is quite wor­ri­some—one must be very care­ful to avoid ac­ci­den­tally spread­ing dan­ger­ous in­for­ma­tion. If the main con­straint on an at­tack vec­tor can re­ally just be that the types of peo­ple who make at­tacks haven’t thought of it yet, it’s very im­por­tant to avoid spread­ing knowl­edge of po­ten­tial ways in which we’re vuln­er­a­ble to these at­tacks—you might wind up giv­ing the wrong per­son dan­ger­ous ideas!

Many oth­er­wise an­a­lyt­i­cal or strate­gic thinkers that I have en­coun­tered seem to fall prey to the typ­i­cal mind fal­lacy in these cases, as­sum­ing that oth­ers will also have put thought into these things and thus that there’s no real risk in dis­cussing them—af­ter all, these meth­ods are “ob­vi­ous” or even “pub­li­cly known”. Cer­tainly I have made this mis­take my­self be­fore!

How­ever, what is “pub­li­cly known” in some book or white pa­per some­where may only be prac­ti­cally known by a few peo­ple. Openly dis­cussing such mat­ters, es­pe­cially on­line, risks many more peo­ple see­ing it than oth­er­wise would. Fur­ther, I would gen­er­ally say that the types of peo­ple who make at­tacks are cun­ning but uni­mag­i­na­tive. They are able to ex­e­cute ex­ist­ing plans fairly effec­tively, but are com­par­a­tively un­likely to come up with novel meth­ods. This means that there’s ex­tra rea­son to be wary that you might have come up with some­thing they haven’t.

Thus, when deal­ing with po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous in­for­ma­tion, care should be taken to pre­vent it from spread­ing. That doesn’t, of course, mean that you can’t talk these mat­ters over with trusted col­leagues or study to help pre­pare defenses and solve vuln­er­a­bil­ities—but it does mean that you should be care­ful when do­ing so.

As strange as it seems, it is very pos­si­ble that the only rea­son things haven’t gone wrong in just the way you’re think­ing of is that dan­ger­ous peo­ple haven’t thought of it yet—and if so, you don’t want to be the one giv­ing them ideas!

Author’s note: Sincere thanks to those who as­sisted me with this post; their as­sis­tance has made it safer and more com­pel­ling.

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