Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Dangerous knowledge

The Dominion-Post has more information this morning on the SIS snooping around New Zealand universities. As expected, there are is no specific security threat. Instead, they are trying to encourage universities to snoop on their students (and their international students in particular) to ensure that they are not pursuing dangerous avenues of research:

Mr Goff said the meetings were an effort to be "proactive rather than reactive". They were an effort to build relationships with universities so "if there's information people do come to New Zealand to develop biological . . . or nuclear weapons, we can act".

There were "no specific concerns" about any particular university or ethnic group, but the focus was on science students who could develop skills in areas such as nuclear physics.

Unfortunately, the skills required are astoundingly broad; back in the 60's, the Nth-country project showed that a pair of physics PhDs with no specific knowledge of nuclear physics at all could, with access to what was around in the public literature in 1964, design a working nuclear weapon. Preventing this threat would require closing down physics departments entirely. And the skills required for rudimentary bioweapons - not designing your own supervirus, but culturing sufficient quantities of an existing disease to mount a small attack - are even simpler. Guess we'd better shut down the biology departments and health sector as well.

More generally, just the premise that the government should be allowed to vet what people are allowed to study and learn is nothing less than totalitarian, and more reminiscent of a police state than a free and democratic society like New Zealand.


Aside from trying to find work for themselves and general paranoia, I think the main reason the SIS is doing this sort of thing is just plain pig ignorance among their staff - like many modern people, they assume that technology and the education to make weapons is difficult, and that therefore they have to control education at the level they think it becomes dangerous. What they don't realise is that with modern information tech, the level at which education becomes dangerous (ie, gives one the ability to research and make weapons) starts at around early high school level, not at university level. With the knowledge of chemistry, physics, woodworking and metalworking etc, I learned in high school and at home, I started designing and making basic weapons - bombs, rockets, cannon, napalm, fuel air explosives, in my late teenage years. Now, both myself and my partner have PhDs, and although the fields are geology and astronomy respectively, our research skills are such that I don't doubt that we could research and design an operative weapons system of your choice, if you threw budget and library access at us. It may not be pretty or highly developed, but it would work.

In short, I think the SIS is well and truly out standing in their field. I got most of my best formulae, reactions and designs out of an old (mid seventies) edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Are they machinating to censor that? Nutbars.

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 5/09/2006 12:55:00 PM

Thanks WV, your post makes me feel so much better..."I started designing and making basic weapons - bombs, rockets, cannon, napalm, fuel air explosives, in my late teenage years"...they let you out at weekends?

Posted by Anonymous : 5/09/2006 01:35:00 PM

PabloR: Well, among other things. I also built kites, model aircraft, longbows, crossbows, collected several ton of agates, fossils, made flint tools, read every book I could get my hands on, learned to drive wheeled and tracked vehicles, made fireworks, etc. The rest of my siblings did the same sort of things. I'm now driving an ion microprobe for the Aus. National Uni, my elder sister is a trauma surgeon, my elder brother restores and builds artillery pieces & fighter planes, and runs music festivals, my two younger siblings run heavy manufacturing businesses and build fairground rides, trade and sell robotic machinery.

I'm trying to point out that anyone with an enquiring mind, a paper or online library, and some resources (we had thirty acres of farmyard with tractors and junk machinery, and 300 acres of farm for testing) will do the sorts of things that make the SIS paranoid not because they are evil terrorists, but because they think its fucking cool.

Posted by Weekend_Viking : 5/09/2006 01:52:00 PM

PabloR: Looking past that, Weekend Viking makes a rather important point. All of this dangerous knowledge that the SIS wants to suppress is publicly available, in libraries, encyclopedias, journal articles and online academic databases. What the government is basically saying is that people shouldn't be allowed to go to the library - or that if they are, that their reading habits should be carefully monitored to ensure that they're not researching anything "dangerous". And that is simply Orwellian.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/09/2006 03:11:00 PM

" on science students who could develop skills in areas such as nuclear physics."

I bet whoever thought that up didn't have a physics degree.

I recall in my stage III physics class asking about techniques for separation of weapon-grade isotopes. The lecturer (who'd been vaguely involved with such work in England in the 60s) was very helpful with references. It very quickly became clear to me that this was a task for serious industrial facilities.

Hell, Iran hasn't got nukes yet despite a lot of smart physics PhDs, billions to spend (literally), tens of thousands of workers available, and years to do it in.

I'm with WV on this. There's lots of dangerous stuff you can build in your basement in a few weeks. There's more you can build in a warehouse with a few friends over a year or so. Using nuclear physics to build weapons is NOT something small cells of amateurs will do.

Posted by Icehawk : 5/10/2006 09:28:00 AM

Icehawk: Well not unless they already have a pile of enriched Uranium lying around - but then you have a different problem. But its this broader focus on "developing the skills" which bothers me - because the skills are so basic and so broad that this invites surveillance of just about anybody. If Phil Goff had his way, your undergraduate inquiries would have attracted the attention of the security services, just to ensure you weren't up to anything. And given their well-known competance, that's a recipe for abuse.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 5/10/2006 09:50:00 AM