TED Conversations

Marc Goodman

INTERPOL-International Criminal Police Organization


This conversation is closed.

What is the greatest security challenge facing humanity today?

What do you see as the most pressing global security challenges of the 21st century? The broad themes are crime, terrorism, warfare and corruption.

Of course security is a theme which transcends many of the biggest issues facing our planet today, including environment change, access to clean water, poverty and disease/pandemic, to name but a few.

In your opinion, what do you view as the greatest security challenge facing mankind?

What steps can we take now to positively impact the greatest number of people from a global security perspective?

How might an innovative emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotech, biology, ubiquitous computing, genomics, synthetic biology, etc help resolve this challenge?

Thanks in advance for your input.

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    Mar 24 2011: Our greatest security risk is the collective manifestation of neglected character development. Collectively, citizens of developed countries act out immaturity to such an extent that life is threatened everywhere. We talk about these as the issues of climate change, financial crises, unemployment rates, wars, etc.

    In other words, if we trace all the issues listed in the start of this conversation and many of those listed in response--military spending, resource abuse, etc.--we will see that either the enactment of superior human qualities or the lack thereof are at the root.

    Character development, taken on by daring individuals is truly what is needed. For example, our issues of carbon emissions could be remedied if each of us (particularly those who have washing machines and fly in airplanes) applied the brakes on our consumption, refined our choices, and practiced mature restraint.

    As Bill McKibben has pointed out we have already altered our planet to the point that it might as well be called Eaarth to capture that this is a different planet now. This being so, we will need to create technical solutions to deal with the effects of our long unrestrained abuse of the earth and its peoples. And we also have a long list of remedies for climate change that involves no innovation, but rather behavior changes. We must care enough to do this, and thus is comes back to character development.

    Lastly, while I highlight climate change, character development is again the core answer to any of the world's crises--financial, violence, etc. If enough individuals cultivate superior human qualities in themselves, then practices of greed and violence will be stripped out of our economic and institutional DNA, and practices of compassion and support for the greater good will replace them in the long-term.
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      Mar 25 2011: Hi Adam!I agree that we are striking the same warning note. I try to answer each question in response to the questioner trying to surmise what they might need from me in an answer. The person who framed this question is affiliated with Interpol. Thus, I am not sure how he could plug in the theme of character development. He can, however, approach the concept of corruption. That is a security issue that he can take back to his community, convince them that there is a great body in agreement that it is urgent and wage war against. I love it that you are so astute about character development and agree that it is lacking. It is so important to the growth and strength of any society and yet- it has been so neglected today (I cite the banking crisis and the fact that no one has been charged). It will take a ground swell of a movement to change it but it has to start one person at a time. You are already radiating strength of character out to the world.
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        Mar 26 2011: If it would be easy to just plant more plants to sequester the excess CO2 then we probably would be already doing it. Unfortunatelym things aren't that streight forward.
        As to your last paragraph: i think it was a poor choice of words as you can see from the responses, although I think I understand what you actually wanted to express.
        I interpret it as, the best way to make changes happen, is to be an example. A doctor, chain smoking cigarettes is probably in a difficult position to convince somebody that smoking is bad.
        So let's just rephrase your thought into a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world"
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        Mar 26 2011: Hi Adam, I can't talk about you and whether your weight is just right, too low or too high is your personal issue and most certainly shouldn't be up for debate. However, I see you are doing a lot of good things and I applaud you for that. If everybody would do just a little bit, it would add up and have significant impact on our world.
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      Mar 25 2011: The truth is inevitable and all these problems mentioned here have the same cause: world has too much PEOPLE. How to solve this is one of the challenges we will face on the next decades.
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      Mar 29 2011: Frederic, nothing is preventing me to plant a tree. Actually, I'm in the lucky situation of owning a 1600 m2 backyard, which I converted in a food forest, expecting, that whithin 3 years, I'll be able to cover 100% of my veggie/fruit demand out of the comfort of my home.
      BUT, that's me. How many city dwellers do you think can easily follow that example ?
      Beside, the solution to the problem is not producing pollution and then trying to offset it somehow, but to AVOID it in the first place.
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    Mar 24 2011: The greatest security risk?

    How about the fact that one country spends more on it's military then the rest of the world combined?
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      Mar 24 2011: That is a good one, Tim.
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      Mar 24 2011: That plus the fact that governments of the country usually try to convince population that they are on a mission for expanding democracy around the world. This can be very very dangerous.
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    Mar 26 2011: As a national security professional, I worry about the future of the planet and of humanity itself. In the near term, the next 15-20 years, the existence of the vast majority of the world's population will continue to be at risk for daily survival. Conditions at the micro-level of society - the daily struggle to survive and the personal desire to find a better future are pushing waves of population migrations that exceed all major population migrations of the history of mankind put together. Humanity has, and always, will migrate. The current vast migrations of populations from zones of marginal living towards those zones that offer relative security (physical and economic) continue to set conditions for exploitation by those who, as Mr. Burke points out, lack fundamental character. Mass migrations bring disenfranchised people and create security challenges for even the most stable of governments.

    Unfortunately, we are still a world where seeds of conflict are easily sown and carried. We're still a world exploited for economic gain at the corporate and individual level. And we're a world with continued unchecked population growth - that will continue to demand we consume the Earth's resources and kill its biodiversity at alarming rates. Until population growth is checked and migrations regulated to sustainable rates we will not see a more stable planet. Instability will continue to be a dominant shaping force on the planet.

    The Department of Defense does expend a great deal of focus on shaping security for future generations. For example we are working in Africa across all fields and disciplines, with USAID, with State Department, with non-governmental organizations, to promote African nations' ability to fight corruption, to respect human rights and provide good governance. My fear is that this is only a bandage. What is needed is fundamental change in future generations to understand that humanity's collective action threatens all of us.
    • Mar 28 2011: Hi Larry,

      your work is very important. But how does a bureau like USAID ensure, that it's choices, fundings and projects are the most effective possible?

      thank you and your colleagues for what you achieve and what you try
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    Mar 26 2011: EGO is the biggest "security" challenge for mankind for all times of humans evolution....
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    • Apr 11 2011: agree
    • Apr 15 2011: Can you be more specific?
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          Apr 17 2011: I disagree with your claim about Kant, though you may be right in the spin Hegel puts on the whole thing. Kant was hardly a moral relativist, as you seem to have painted him here. Rather, he believed that while we could not draw conclusions about the nature of the world beyond our filtering, we could draw a number of objective conclusions based on the structural form of thinking itself.

          I disagree on a deeper level with your explicit claim that we hear relativism on all sides, as there are any number of holy-scripture-quoting people perfectly willing to impose their version of absolute truth on us all. There are thousands of years worth of history to illustrate that those are similarly unrealistic solutions.

          The real question comes when we ask, then, according to the criteria you've set up, what would count as a "realistic" philosophy?
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    Mar 29 2011: What is the greatest security challenge?
    The greatest security challenge is man intention to utilize other people resources for his own benefit without paying the price to the resource owner
    this is done every day by individuals and by powerful country like USA went to Iraq for OIL
    if every one committed not to take other resources without pay the price then every one will feel safe
  • Mar 28 2011: I think the most pressing challenge the world is facing is the policy of marketing that the capitalism is leading .This policy has given people everything they need ,but has killed the feeling of being humans inside us .People have become interested in benefiting from anything regardless of some teachings that religion ,humanity or other moral references encourage us to follow .
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    Mar 27 2011: I really want to thank all of you who have provided such excellent comments to my original question. Many offered perspectives that I had not previously considered.

    As I read through your messages, each falls broadly into one of the following categories:

    *Abuse of natural resources
    *Military spending
    *Lack of character or too much ego/selfishness/materialism
    *Lack of education
    *Cybercrime/emerging technologies/telerobotics

    My goal in posing my original question was not purely academic. Rather, I'm trying to positively influence our common global security and hope to make a true difference doing so. I know this may sound like "pie in the sky" thinking given all the challenges enumerated above. That said, one has to try and I believe that is what TED is all about.

    Since the "T" in TED stands for technology (and it is part of my own background and experience), I believe it has the potential to play a useful roll in promoting global security. That said, as many of you noted, technology can also pose a threat as well.

    I understand clearly the importance of character, education and the judicious use of our precious natural resources, but as a security professional, those are not my particular areas of deep expertise (though I'm always willing to learn more!)

    In considering some of the security threats I raised in the initial question: crime, terrorism, warfare and corruption--what specific steps might we take to reduce the harm to society that these challenges pose?

    More specifically, I would like to cleverly leverage technology (T in TED) to make a significant and positive impact in those domains, if possible. Of course I understand technology is no panacea, but I believe it can play a positive role in our common response.

    I welcome your continued co feedback on how we might credibly leverage technology to reduce the social harm caused by crime, terrorism, war and corruption. Thank you all.
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      Mar 28 2011: Here's what INTERPOL needs:

      1. A budget 100x larger than what's allocated to the UN itself.
      2. A full-spectrum of intelligence capabilities.
      3. A large network of state-of-the-art remote sensing platforms
      4. The world's largest network of informants
      5. A pool of case officers that covers the whole spectrum of the world's languages and at sufficient capacity
      6. The ability work in dual roles in a cooperative and coordinative role with national security forces and simultaneously act as an international honest broker when your allies violate their own and international laws

      Realistically, INTERPOL isn't going to get any of that with a budget of EUR 60 mil, and at best it'll probably only serve in a coordination role with very little authority. Although it may not have physical intelligence assets, it could use AI to gather and translate open source intelligence (OSI), and use it to collapse probability fields to make educated guesses in its areas of interest - which would simulate what actual domestic and foreign intelligence agencies do but at much lower costs. You need Common LISP programmers, physicists, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists.to develop your software, a supercomputer farm, an ITSEC team that can defend it, and a method of giving relevant information to interested stakeholders.
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        Apr 11 2011: Why not just cover the globe with video cameras, connect them to the internet (with replay) and let the public do the surveillance?

        This will happen. And a lot sooner then INTERPOL or any other govt bureaucracy gets up to speed.
        • Apr 15 2011: It's not the cheapest endeavor, something even second world countries can't afford.
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      Mar 28 2011: Marc, quickly I just want to say, I applaud your reasons and hopes for asking this question. You embody the essence of TED, and the orientation in character that I detailed in my post. Thanks and keep up the good work.
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      Mar 29 2011: Marc: "...what specific steps might we take to reduce the harm to society that these challenges pose?"
      Isn't that a little bit like the patient asking the doctor for some remedy against his head aches, instead having a check up to see what actually causes de head aches ?
      I think if we only try to reduce the impact of above mentioned challenges on society, we always will be a step behind.
      We need to look at the root causes responsible for crimes, and start working there. In other words, we need to work on prevention and on removing environments where crimes can breed.
      Tackling issues such as poverty and education would be something to start with.
    • Apr 11 2011: In terms of technology - the proliferation of electronic media, and the move away from print as the dominant form of media, is indirectly responsible for a great many security risks.

      As Neil Postman observed in "Amusing Ourselves to Death" electronic media doesn't just change how we communicate, it ends up changing the actual content of what we say. For example, more and more people understand the world through overly short, overly simplified data - news stories that last 30 seconds, then switch immediately to the next 30 second story so that the viewer doesn't have time to actually think about the first. We have info from all the over the world at near instant speeds, but we rarely say anything that delves beneath the surface of things. This shift in public discourse undeniably conditions the way our minds work and view the world.

      To give only one example of a consequence, some years ago Americans (and other Western nations) got involved in Somalia. The news said, "They're starving, let's send food and money" and showed some photos of skinny children. We sent food, money, personnel - for years, in fact. The truth is that famines are not a problem with farms, but with the market. Destabilization, violence, corruption, all escalated, while a few Americans and Somalis got rich. The public, meanwhile, makes their donation, feels good, then forgets all about it. The reality was too complex to make a good story - but you do more harm than good by blindly sending aid to a society much different than ours.

      The simplistic mindset of, "they are hungry, if we send them food everything will be ok" lead to tremendous amounts of suffering and death. While I wasn't around back in the days of a typographically-oriented society, the nature of print fosters the ability to follow a line of thought over several (or several hundred) pages - an ability that seems to be fading in our oversimple, culturally-amnesiac society. The Somali pirates of today are one direct result
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    Mar 26 2011: I view security the same way I view health. Direct security is important, but we cannot anticipate every possible threat/disease. So it's important to create a robust, healthy society that can recover from the massive, inevitable shocks that will come from living in a world this interconnected. If people are happy, healthy, educated, socially connected, empathetic, and treated fairly, they will be disinclined to create instability. Crime, terrorism, etc. are partly just symptoms of social disease, and they are not the diseases themselves. Tackling "insecurity" at its root requires a combination of (1) prevention, (2) "disease-fighting", and (3) the ability to recover from devastating attacks -- all components of health.

    With all that said, I think "cybercrime" is among the biggest threats to global security. Digital problems are more decentralized (tough to control) and have a larger scale factor than analog problems (fast, big impact).

    To take one example, our money is insecure. The Federal Reserve digitally created and loaned out 9 Trillion dollars with no oversight for criminal bankers. If (other) criminals manage to create and permeate a large amount of money digitally, how would we know? How would we recover from a "cyber attack" on our money? If the Federal Reserve has zero transparency or accountability with respect to its money creation, so we have no way of keeping track of money once it is created, or how often it is created, or who gets it once it is created, etc.

    We need a way to trace and to electronically verify the "authenticity" of every digital dollar/euro/yen in existence in order to prevent digital counterfeiting, combat it once it happens, and recover from attacks on the financial system. Otherwise, continual abuses of the power to create digital money by non-state actors seems not only possible, but likely:

    (key words: 9 TRillion dollars, no constraints)
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      Mar 27 2011: Printed currency accounts for less than 5% of all money circulating in the economy. Most counterfeited currencies are floating abroad internationally. Most of the money in an economy is locked up in large denomination ($100k+) certificates of deposit and bonds, or is floating around in international currency speculation markets. The Federal Reserve is America's number one creditor and holder of public debt.

      I would argue that intellectual property theft is an even bigger problem than counterfeiting. There are many developing and advanced nations that direct their intelligence services primarily towards economic espionage and IP theft, and a few have economies almost entirely based on it, which undermines INTERPOL's efforts in dealing with the problem.
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    Mar 24 2011: If I try to reduce it to the factor that I think is the most insidious and most problematic at the deepest level- I guess I think the problem is corruption. With corruption comes the inability to deal at a collective level with any of the other problems like terrorism, food security, environmental change, banking crises or curing of diseases. Corruption undermines governmental efforts, efforts of NGOs and of businesses. Corruption is lucrative and the money has a lure that seems to deaden conscience and any sense that another human being is important. The WTO tries to quantify corruption and there are many places where it is virtually impossible to spread economic development because of corruption. I am not sure I expressed that well but corruption is my answer to your question concerning the most serious security threat.
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      Mar 24 2011: Debra, I approach this from a different angle in my post. I agree with you that lack of character development has brought upon us the multitude of crises we face from climate change to war to economics. And as you can read in my post, I highlight the cultivation of superior human qualities as the answer to these issues as well.
  • Mar 24 2011: Our mindless use of resources, which can not be sustained, but is the base of our societies - and their stability.

    We have to adapt to a rise in price of energy (e.g. oil & food - like the inefficient meat) and materials and there are two ways to do that: voluntarily, which means by ourselves, before it is too late and if that doesn't work, involuntarily, which means by environmental pressures giving us not other choice. The latter poses the greatest threat to our security I would suggest. In reality it will, by definiton, have te be always something in between both possibilities. Because you can only tackle a problem as long as you know something about it, and as long as it is (still) resolvable.

    Just imagine, or better study, the supply of one modern city with food and energy, but without oil, gas, coal or nuclear, as none of these sources are sustainable.
    Some cities and countries are better prepared than others, but no major community is really ready as far as I know.

    Certainly the impact will be a gradual one, as the oil is not going to dry up from one day to the next. But the pace of global consumption is rising, which in turn makes the timeframe for a transition without major loss of human lifes shorter.

    There are already some members of the human race concerned and engaged in defusing this time bomb by increadsing efficiency and sustainability, developing social and technical innovation, of which TED certainly is one haven. But humans have a strong tendency to only rise once a problem is on their doorstep.

    So I believe we will either see a mass movement towards sustainability - which means to acquire and network existing and approaching knowledge in order to live a sustanable private and business life - or the break-down of the human civilisation.

    I would bet on the first outcome, as I wouldn't have much to win or loose in the second scenario anyway.
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    Apr 16 2011: One of the greatest security challenges facing humanity today is the lack of independent security research and development capabilities in law enforcement.

    To address future risks to humanity on a global scale we need adequate law enforcement R&D collaboration on a global scale that is not commercially (therefore reactively) biased. This is particularly true for security intelligence systems.

    Law enforcement cannot afford to remain in a "playing catch-up with criminals mode". The stakes are too high when one considers the exponential growth curve and concentration risk associated with our increased adoption and reliance upon online systems.
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    Apr 16 2011: As long as nuclear war can destroy millions of people in one act of insanity, how can it not pose the biggest security challenge for every country? The fallout alone could poison the environment and kill remnant populations for decades if not centuries. Maybe I don't understand the question. Aside from a Yellowstone mega-volcanic cataclysm, what greater
    global security threat could exist?
    • Apr 22 2011: Not to be dissenting but to offer a possible reason. "How can it not [be]..." The likelihood of it happening. Of course that's discounted if one believes that there's a high likelihood.
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    Apr 15 2011: I'd say that securing critical infrastructures and services over the Internet is the greatest security challenge that humanity is already facing today and will be for the next 10 or so years.

    It's beyond doubt that everything nowadays depends on technology and to be more specific on computers.
    Those computer systems need to be interconnected, in order to provide their services either directly or indirectly to people.

    The IRS, SSN, banks, medical records, cctv systems, billings (water, fixed and mobile phones, electricity etc) are all on-line.
    If anyone get's access to such systems, then everybody is a potential victim and could be in danger some time in the future.
    Stuxnet is a very good example of what worms and viruses (hence people) are able to achieve.
    This is just the beginning of a series of cyber warfare operations going on.
    And there are a lot of people who already have illegal access to such systems all over the world.
    Individuals, governments, terrorist or not groups, activists etc.

    Securing all those infrastructures IS the hardest thing to do, since the most safe PC is the one that is locked in a basement room, with no power and no Ethernet connection whatsoever.
  • Apr 15 2011: It's hard to gauge, given new, unprecedented dangers that arise over the period of a few years. A lot of people give general answers here because of this, and I will do this as well; however, it is imperative to do some radical brainstorming because tomorrow's greatest danger will be something we would never imagine today; therefore, I'll also add something specific.

    General: people quickly forget the lessons of yesteryear. How many people born today will truly understand the horrors of World War II? Eighty years down the road, a full lifetime after the rapid loss of 75 million lives, will anybody? Similar signs leading to worldwide conflict will be more difficult to appreciate for what they are.

    Specific: a world that finally abandons carbon heavy fuels widely adopts nuclear energy as the next best alternative. While hard to predict at this time, a problem arises from the massive use of fossil fuels with planetary changes (similar to global warming) that cannot be identified with the limited use nuclear energy sees at the moment. [note: I'm a proponent and very well versed in nuclear energy; I still think, however, that it needs to be adopted carefully, analyzed every step of the way for similar problems.]
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    Apr 11 2011: The biggest problem affecting the security of humanity is the growing disconnect between our actions and our awareness of their consequences- for other people and for the environment. When humans lived in small tribes in limited surroundings, there was rapid feedback about the negative consequences of behaviors that were antisocial or deleterious to the immediate environment that supported the tribe's survival. In face-to-face situations, we are adept at reading the emotional reactions of others, and in adjusting our behavior to maintain peace and stability. Without this direct feedback, however, we tend to drift into self- promoting behavior, oblivious to the consequences.

    This shows up clearly in our driving behaviors, where the lack of an obvious face behind the steering wheel leads us into silly displays of road rage at perceived insults. Also in Internet "communications", which rapidly devolve into flame-wars without any body language feedback. We no longer depend on a local environment, and receive our sustenance from far-away farms and oceans; we receive no direct feedbacks about the alarming degradation of these systems. We are a world of small tribes- sensitive to those we have facetime with, but with little feeling or compassion for faceless others who get lumped into categories such as Liberals, or Muslims, or CEO's, or illegal immigrants, and etc.

    If technology could put more of a human face on the consequences of our actions, to replace the feedback systems that we have evolved to respond to, then we might be able to identify, agree upon, and support solutions to problems that threaten us more than most are willing to believe.
  • Apr 10 2011: Fear. These days, fear has become a moral imperative, as if decisions taken from any other perspective must be inherently faulty. Today is lost in a miasm of terror about imagined futures. That is the current tragedy. Loss of today's compassion, humanity, love; loss of the only moment we can really affect - now - all due to fears about what could happen.

    This is not to say that prudence is useless, but that the greatest problem is what's guiding our actions; fear or love.
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      Apr 11 2011: Agree. Fear is the primary tool of the politicians. Whether it is Al Gore volunteering to lead us in the battle against global warming, or Richard Nixon protecting us against the Communists, politicians gain power via fear-mongering.
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    Apr 10 2011: I think the stereotypical "Terrorist" concept is a major "security problem" for everyone living outside of the USA.
    Or some massive earthquake.
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    Apr 10 2011: The lack of security training for teachers and principals in our schools. How long until terrorists step into the hallways where our children study or onto the playgrounds? If we think a few Columbine or UVA scenarios are scary, wait until trained paramilitary personnel come into the equation. This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.
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    Apr 9 2011: It's the same security threat as in the past, a nuclear bomb, in any manifestation, of course. A single terrorist bomb, an exchange between countries, a tactical warhead detonated on a battlefield, etc. The threat that would keep me awake at night is a stolen (or handmade) suitcase nuke that could be detonated anywhere in the world via cellphone. A full sized nuclear bomb, which is about the size of a refrigerator can be delivered to any place in any city via shipping container in a truck, then exploded.

    There will be no fingerprints, no way to trace the perpetrators. Millions could easily die in one coordinated attack. I can't think of any threat that compares.
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    Apr 9 2011: The biggest security threat is personal Individual and human rights.
    That we are fooled to believe that the people that run things for us have our interests at heart.
    The systems are corrupt giving Unlimited power to a few individuals starting from the Federal reserve and
    the way "Democratic" Elections occur to the Big Pharmaceutical companies having so much sway in the Governments.
    Money is power and money is controlled, people are being put into debt by their governing "rulers' who have no
  • Apr 9 2011: Technology, environmental issues etc, all are important. But the greatest threat is very simple, it is the falling apart of family structures.
  • Apr 9 2011: Security is only an idea, an illusion, a concept. Nothing is secure.

    Having said that:
    -The consumer/consumption based economic system must be killed off. It leads to the current state of parasitism that is killing us and our planet. It causes monopolists to become empowered by their greed, encourages a type of psychopathic behaviour towards others and our home.
    -Religions and their differences, their pushing of bigotry, prejudice, persecution, war and the generation of irrational "fairy-tale" thinking.
    -Our tendency to rely increasingly upon technologies that are unnecessary and even dehumanizing.
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    Apr 8 2011: bio-terrorism.
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    Apr 8 2011: A triumvirate of three interlocking problems.

    1. Oil depletion, closely coupled to 2. the precarious global financial bubble, and both of those problems being exacerbated by 3. climate change.

    Caught in a pincer by these three challenges is food, and this will manifest as the major breakdown symptom. Already is. Food insecurity will be the major cause of social and political unrest in coming decades.

    Too many well meaning folk are dealing with these challenges as single problems rather than systemically.

    Avoiding partial collapse of society that these challenges will precipitate is no longer possible, but we can do a great deal to bring about an emergent culture that is far more sane and enjoyable and sustainable.