Monday, November 19, 2012

Cellphones as Weapons Against Illicit (Antiquities) Networks: Google Ideas Has My Idea

Jason Felch, ahead of the pack as always, has posted on the Wikiloots facebook page links to an organization that looks as if it might actually be able to push forward the anti-looting agenda in a big way. Google Ideas, a self-described "think/do tank" spun off, it appears, by a few Google millionaires and run by a former State Department official, Jared Cohen, "convenes unorthodox stakeholders, commissions research, and seeds initiatives to explore the role that technology can play in tackling some of the toughest human challenges."

One of those challenge, as it happens, is illicit networks, about which the site says:

The persistence of illicit networks—including organized crime, narcotics, human trafficking, arms trafficking, terrorism, and cybercrime—affects every country and every demographic. While various illicit networks may differ from each other in terms of the goods they move and the objectives they pursue, their tactics are often remarkably similar.
Illicit networks strive for maximum secrecy and efficiency to evade law enforcement. Despite all of this, most efforts to investigate and intercept illicit networks have been siloed rather than holistic, depriving those who seek to combat them of opportunities to learn from one another. 
The increasing ubiquity of connection technologies will both empower those driving illicit networks as well as the citizens seeking to curb them. These networks have been around for centuries, but one thing has changed—the vast majority of people now have a mobile device, empowering citizens with the potential to disrupt the secrecy, discretion, and fear that allow illicit networks to persist. As illicit networks grow in scope and complexity, society’s strategy to reduce their negative impact must draw on the tremendous power of technology.
In brief: use social networks powered by cellphone technology to force into visibility looters, smugglers, dealers, and collectors of illicit antiquities. Since this is basically what I have been urging for the past several years on this blog, I am thrilled to find the basic concept is being thought about by people with the means to realize it.

My joy is tempered and made a bit bittersweet, however, by the knowledge that antiquities are not mentioned (at least not so far as I can discern, though I'd be happy to be shown otherwise) in the very minimal copy provided on the organization's site. This is all the more depressing because it turns out that Jared Cohen has direct experience of looted antiquities. He was the point person for the Google project to put the Iraq National Museum's artifacts online, a task that led him to visit Baghdad. Was he apprised then of the massive looting of archaeological sites by his State Department colleagues? I wrote at the time that the failure to get Google engaged in trying to help the Iraqis monitor their archaeological sites was a major missed opportunity. It would be terrible to miss the chance this time round as well. So if anyone reading this knows how to get hold of Jared Cohen, please pass along the heartfelt hope that he and Google Ideas will recognize that illicit antiquities networks would make an excellent candidate for a proof-of-concept.

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