Killed by mistake

Published April 26, 2014
— Reuters Photo
— Reuters Photo

According to a report by veteran journalists Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, the US Military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are increasingly relying on artificial intelligence powered by the National Security Agency (NSA) for electronic surveillance and assassination of suspected militants in Pakistan’s northern areas.

In other words, it is not human intelligence, but rather software that is being used to decide the location of the next drone strike. This is the latest in the line of reports following former NSA officer Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the organisation’s operations.

In the wake of this new revelation, let’s have an overview of the various abuses of technology that have been associated with the NSA. It all started in May 2013, when an employee of the US Military defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, named Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong with a cache of classified intelligence documents. It was soon revealed by The Guardian, much to the shock of the public, that the US government had forced the telecom giant Verizon to hand over consumer data to the US military. The story soon became much bigger.

Over the next few months, it became clear through reports by journalist Glenn Greenwald that the NSA had access to internal data held by Google, Facebook, Apple and other US tech giants. Following that, it was revealed that the NSA had a more than 10 billion US dollar budget not only to spy on US domestic and foreign communications, but also on world leaders. It was also reported by Der Spiegel that the NSA has a backdoor pass to numerous computer devices and hardware exported from the USA, as well as access to computer security products such as those from the security giant Juniper Networks.

As we look at this monolithic system of surveillance, perhaps the disclosure most relevant to Pakistan is reported by the Washington Post, that the NSA tracks mobile phone locations worldwide, creating roughly five billion records a day, and infers relationships based on mobile location data. In other words, NSA analysts can find almost any mobile phone in the world, track its movements and analyse the communication carried out. In fact, the NSA collects locations in bulk, and then runs them through an artificial intelligence program called “CO-TRAVELER” that allows it to track associates of known intelligence targets using the intersection of their movements.

Where do drone strikes come in all this? According to the report by Scahill and Greenwald, it is this mobile phone metadata that is used as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes. The human intelligence element in some of these strikes is wiped out altogether: “Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the US military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.” This is done using “geo-locating” the suspect’s mobile phone, enabling the US Military to conduct night raids or drone strikes to kill the individual. According to a former drone operator, innocent people have often been killed due to metadata error.

There are several problems with using metadata to wipe out suspects. The foremost among them is that suspected militants are aware of US Military tactics and often keep multiple SIM cards to deceive US Intelligence. Moreover, suspects may also lend mobile phones to other people, landing the innocent in the crossfire of the US Military and suspected militants. As explained further by the report, the program “sometimes facilitate strikes without knowing whether the individual in possession of a tracked mobile phone or SIM card is in fact the intended target of the strike.” Even if the suspect whose mobile phone is being tracked is a legitimate target, it is highly likely that there may be many innocent people with them in the structure when it is hit by a drone strike.

A program code-named GILGAMESH is also notable in the report. Under GILGAMESH, a special device connected to a drone helps it locate the targeted SIM card and get close to it by acting as a virtual mobile phone tower. According to the former drone operator interviewed, if the mobile is in the hands of a person who is not the suspect, he will be killed anyway because he will be located precisely by the drone. This obviously leaves a large portion of the population of the tribal areas at the mercy of this software.

Exacerbating the smoke surrounding all these operations is the steadfast refusal of the US Intelligence to comment on the veracity of these claims. The NSA has not commented to date on whether drone strikes are ever conducted without the use of human intelligence. One must wonder, however, about the extent to which the Pakistani military and government are aware of these new revelations.

These revelations, especially in light of the demure protests floated by the Pakistani government, are quite bizarre. To summarise the findings so far, not only the US government conducts assassination missions inside Pakistan, it also, via drones, tracks the movements and relationships of Pakistani citizens using mobile phone metadata, and then uses that metadata to target suspects. In the absence of any statistics regarding the actual efficacy of a non-human intelligence system of assassination, this is clearly a major violation that needs to be investigated further. Whether any local mobile phone firms are complicit in data sharing to a foreign organisation is also a question that naturally comes to mind. There is clearly much wrong with this picture.



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