Drone warfare: Smartphones are drone beacons.

Drone warfare: Smartphones are drone beacons. By Kerry Howley.

In 2015, an insider leaked dozens of pages of documents about the inner workings of the American drone program, including information about the bureaucracy behind the “kill list” over which Barack Obama then presided. …

Drones target smartphones:

Daniel was 25 years old. Over the course of his life, he and everyone he knew had come to carry beacons in their pockets, continuously beaming their location to towers owned by someone else.

These were years in which Americans slowly became accustomed to being tracked in exchange for small conveniences or simply as the price of engaging in contemporary life. It was hard to turn off the location data on your phone, and even if you made the effort, many apps would continue tracking, so most of us did not bother.

It was disturbing to know that the totality of our email and private messages was being scanned by Google and Facebook, but then we’d already agreed to be tracked by our phones. That a “virtual assistant” you’ve voluntarily placed in your bedroom had the capacity to record private conversations was not ideal, but then even terrorists found that the convenience of communication outweighed the risks. That was how Daniel found them. …

Daniel didn’t know what JSOC was when he was given his deployment papers, though by the time he arrived at Fort Bragg, he knew it was exclusive. …

“The first thing they do,” he says, “is sit you down and you take a basic course in cell-phone technology. How do cell phones work, how do they interact with a network, how do those networks operate, the towers, what’s a SIM card, what’s a handset.” Daniel was shown a box that would be placed on a drone and would pretend to be a cell tower, such that the cell phones of targets would communicate with it. He was beginning to understand.

When he arrived in Afghanistan in 2012, it became Daniel Hale’s job to stare at a screen and direct a drone from wherever it was to the location of a cell-phone number in which the military had interest. He and the other analysts spent their days in a wooden shed, surrounded by dusty old computers still running Windows XP. There were phones and televisions and knots of thick black cable. From the computer, he turned on the box in the drone that searched for the cell-phone data. He loaded the box with the information for people the military was thinking about tracking. He tweaked settings to try to lock on.


Predator drone and Hellfire missile

When he was done, he told someone by chat, and that person focused the camera. It was out of his hands at that point, but he could, if he wished, watch the missile, in a fraction of a second and with a force that shatters concrete, incinerate a group of men. …

Surveillance warfare:

Day after day, the drone will send video feed of the same man leaving the same house and returning again. One becomes familiar with the patterns of his life, and what one cannot know, imagination builds out. At night, when the infrared camera is operative, people appear as red blobs. It is hot, and they go on the roof to sleep. “I saw them having sex with their wives,” said one drone pilot. “It’s two infrared spots becoming one.” A lit cigarette is a sun bobbing before a mouth. This is not the straight path of increasing distance between assassin and target. This is deep, half-imagined, crazy-making intimacy. This is something new.

Over the course of the War on Terror, as we used to call it before it simply became American foreign policy, swathes of Pakistan and Yemen came to be under 24-hour surveillance by drone, which is to say that people living in these areas today cannot cross the street without knowing that they are being recorded and that the recording will be sent to a satellite and sucked into a receiver, where the footage will be stored in the service of someone’s idea of American security. It will very likely never be watched, because there are not enough analysts to analyze all of the footage that the U.S. produces; where privacy is afforded, it is afforded by the grace of inefficiency.

Drones, writes Michael Boyle, a senior fellow in national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, have “led the United States to displace its original goal — to fight al Qaeda more effectively — in favor of a larger one of knowing, and possibly even controlling, greater portions of the earth than it had previously imagined possible.”

Shortly before Daniel Hale arrived in Afghanistan, the Air Force deployed what it called “Gorgon Stare”: a drone video system that involves 368 cameras covering 40 square miles at a time. It used to be that, in watching, we suffered a “soda straw” problem; one could watch, as if through a tube, a single figure cut his way across a landscape to the exclusion of the surrounding land. Wide-area aerial surveillance, familiar from films shot from above, is in fact new to the world; only in the past decade has it become possible to watch a whole landscape, to track a whole network of men who meet at a location and watch them each walk home. This view is enabled by something called a high-altitude long-endurance drone, the acronym for which is HALE. …

Why Daniel become a whistleblower:

Sometimes the machine for which he worked was called “one warhead one forehead,” because each mission targeted only one man. But the men were very often surrounded by other men as the missile found them. This is what ate at him. He knew nothing about these people; none of them would have been the target of the attack. But they would die too. And though the Obama administration would deny this, many men would reportedly not be counted as civilians but as “enemies killed in action.” Daniel knew cell phones could have been passed from presumed terrorists to other people entirely, and innocent people and those around innocent people would then be killed instead. …

Over the course of Daniel’s life, he and everyone he knew had come to carry beacons in their pockets, and they had become expert at not thinking about this. Daniel began to feel like he wasn’t being watched.