MOUNTAIN, VIEW CALIFORNIA – A couple of months ago we visited Juarez, Mexico, a city right across our border — yet so far away.
The scene was almost surreal: We got off the plane and were met on the tarmac by a convoy of armored cars and open-back trucks swarming with police. The officers were “policía federal.” Like the ones you hear about, they carried machine guns and wore masks to hide their identities. They hung off the backs of their trucks, alert, constantly swiveling as they surveyed the landscape.
They were looking for violent criminals. Meanwhile, everyone we met with — civil society leaders, nonprofit activists, private-sector officials and young people — was looking for answers. Their city has been overwhelmed by crime, their lives overcome with fear. They felt defeated, disillusioned and a little helpless. They asked us: What can we do?
To us, at least part of the answer was obvious: technology.
The cartels that roam Juarez are savvy. Smugglers wear GPS bracelets so they can be tracked — the same blue dots that help smartphone users get from A to B are blipping along in the service of kingpins and their associates.
We know that technology can be used for good. As more people around the globe become connected, they can see, read and hear more. Greater access leads to stronger demands for accountability. We believe the spread of modern devices and access for those most threatened will create a virtual, albeit nascent, counterweight against the world’s worst criminals. Even stubborn governments will one day have to meet their citizens’ rising expectations.
Yet connectivity will not, on its own, disrupt illicit networks. People tend to assume that “name and shame” will fix things — as though, once a video of wrongdoing is uploaded, the world will pressure the bad guys. It’s clear that external pressure seldom fixes weak or corrupt institutions.
As we watch violence unfold in Syria, more than video is clearly needed. The pressure has to be internal, from those who are directly affected and have the incentives and mechanisms to fundamentally reshape the world they live in.
Consider an all-too-familiar situation in Juarez: A man cooperates with law enforcement — or is believed to have cooperated — and his wife is subsequently targeted. Many people are aware of such occurrences but do not report them, thinking: Why take the risk when the chance of meaningful change is so low?
Some version of this plays out every day in Mexico.
When people think about speaking out in the face of fear, they almost always do so in pre-Internet terms. Victims find individuals or institutions to confide in. Sometimes those are online, but the basic interaction model is telephonic or broadcast. The model relies on central authorities with trustworthy track records, broad distribution, charismatic leaders, technical sophistication and staffs that balance discretion and distribution.
Simply put, these criteria do not scale. The system breaks down in environments where retribution is common.
Now, consider a network like the Internet, where law enforcement sources send out their messages in little pieces — or, packets — each labeled with the address of their destination. Intermediate nodes forward the packets onward, and they are reassembled at the destination. Each link in the network may not have the full message. The transmitter and receiver don’t need to communicate directly or at the same time. They don’t need to know each other’s location. There’s no single point of failure, no rigid hierarchy.
In Juarez, we saw fearful human beings — sources — who need to get their information into the right hands. With our packet-switching mind-set, we realized that there may be a technological workaround to the fear: Sources don’t need to physically turn to corrupt authorities, distant journalists or diffuse nonprofits and hope that the possible benefit is worth the risk of exposing themselves.
Technology can help intermediate this exchange, like servers passing packets on the Internet. Sources don’t need to pierce their anonymity. They don’t need to trust a single person or institution. Why can’t they simply throw encrypted packets into the network and let the tools move information to the right destinations?
In a sense, we are talking about dual crowdsourcing: Citizens crowdsource incident awareness up, and responders crowdsource justice down, nearly in real time. The trick is that anonymity is provided to everyone, although such a system would know a unique ID for every user to maintain records and provide rewards. This bare-bones model could take many forms: official and nonprofit first responders, investigative journalists, whistle-blowers, neighborhood watches.
Technology is just a tool. The residents of Juarez told us they desperately want technologies that, when used in the right way by the right people, would make a difference. There will be real consequences of trial and error, but we cannot let fear prevent us from innovating.
In a world where cartels and criminals are masters of innovation, technology companies can tip the scales over the long run, helping to provide an innovation advantage to those who need it most.
Eric Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Jared Cohen is director of Google Ideas and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are writing a book about the digital future and last week convened the Google Ideas summit “Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition.”