What if…and “Loose Geeks”

Today, Wired’s Danger Room posted an article about “loose geeks.” I think most people are at least familiar with the concept of loose nukes. “Loose geeks” refers to the related (but perhaps less well known) problem of how to prevent all the nuclear engineers, machinists, physicists, etc. from selling their services to unsavory regimes or terrorist groups. Perhaps the most well known geek mercenary is Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, whose network reportedly worked with many countries. But this problem goes far beyond just one network.

In his article, Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) notes that UN and IAEA reports have found “foreign experts” have helped Iran develop nuclear weapon technology. This is a problem Senators Nunn and Lugar tried to prevent when the Soviet Union collapsed. The two Senators funded a program to not only contain the nukes, but the geeks as well. But it’s not just the US and Russia that have nukes and geeks. Include China, France, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Iraq, North Korea, and Libya on that list. That means there are tens of thousands of experts, some of whom are from unstable or poor countries. Such individuals might be more open to becoming geek mercenaries.

But the problem is, as Ackerman notes, no one really has a handle on how many of these potential loose geeks are out there, let alone how many are really at risk of selling their services. However, those services are a valuable commodity, particularly to countries like Iran, whose experts seem to be meeting with untimely demises.

Every now and then, a story is posted that catches my attention on multiple levels. This story is cool, not only as far as an interesting national security article, but also as far as sparking tons of writing ideas. I mean, this is what these “What if” posts are all about.

Many writers like to write about individuals on the fringes of society–those who flit between the legal, the illegal, and in between. Often these characters will be low-level gangsters or drug dealers or thieves. But the grey economy is bigger than that. In fact, by 2020, the OECD projects that 2/3 of all workers worldwide will be employed in the black market. What if your character was not a thug but a geek? What would make your expert go over to the dark side? His country is invaded? The economy collapses? The country publicly gives up all nuclear programs, making him unemployed? Or what if your expert wasn’t noble to begin with? What if he was a sleeper agent, sent to become an expert? Or what if a group of experts decided to set up their own network? What if instead of selling their services to others like A.Q. Khan, they wanted to carve out a little piece amid a failed or failing state?

Who would seek to hire the loose geeks? Dictatorships and terrorists jump to mind. But what about a corporation? I know it may sound a bit like a James Bond plot, or something Hank Scorpio might try, but is it really any crazier than Virgin Galactic? (No, I do not think Richard Branson is a terrorist) And yes, okay, it is crazier, but then again, it might be cheaper than a commercial space program. And what if your story is set in the near future where nations are weak but global corporations are strong? What better way to defend that strength? Or to initiate a hostile takeover of another variety?

What do you think of this problem? How might it be resolved? How might you incorporate it into your fiction?

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