New Whistleblower Reveals NSA Picking Drone Targets Based On Bad Data: 'Death By Unreliable Metadata'

from the but-it's-just-metadata dept

Late last night, the new publication from Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill launched. It’s called The Intercept, and I imagine that it’s going to be a must-follow for a variety of reasons. Its first major article digs deep into the NSA’s role in killing people with drones (often innocent people) based on questionable metadata. Remember how NSA defenders kept insisting that “it’s just metadata” as if that was no big deal? Well, what about when that metadata is being used to kill people?

Just last week, we wrote about Rep. Mike Rogers complaining about new “red tape” that was making it more difficult to indiscriminately kill people with drones. That “red tape” is actually just a new set of guidelines designed to try to prevent more killing of innocent people with drones. This new report highlights how the US government’s infatuation with drones, combined with the NSA’s obsessive collection of metadata, means that drones are frequently used to kill people based on very little evidence that the people being killed are actually terrorist threats.

One noteworthy point about this article: it relies on two new sources, one named, one kept secret, backed up by Snowden documents. That is, it appears that at least one other source (in this case, a recent member of JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force — the group that’s in charge of figuring out who to capture and kill) has come forward to Greenwald and others, calling foul on what the US government is doing. This person was privy to how targets are selected, and it’s pretty scary how little info they’re going on. The fact that the NSA was heavily involved in picking targets was revealed a while back, but this person explains how much those choosing targets rely on bad metadata from the NSA to kill people — often revealed later to be totally innocent.

In one tactic, the NSA “geolocates” the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist’s mobile phone, enabling the CIA and U.S. military to conduct night raids and drone strikes to kill or capture the individual in possession of the device.

The former JSOC drone operator is adamant that the technology has been responsible for taking out terrorists and networks of people facilitating improvised explosive device attacks against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But he also states that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed as a result of the NSA’s increasing reliance on the surveillance tactic.

One problem, he explains, is that targets are increasingly aware of the NSA’s reliance on geolocating, and have moved to thwart the tactic. Some have as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system. Others, unaware that their mobile phone is being targeted, lend their phone, with the SIM card in it, to friends, children, spouses and family members.

Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. “They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.”

The guy also points out that the metadata is often somewhat questionable in itself:

What’s more, he adds, the NSA often locates drone targets by analyzing the activity of a SIM card, rather than the actual content of the calls. Based on his experience, he has come to believe that the drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata.

“People get hung up that there’s a targeted list of people,” he says. “It’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.”

You would think that someone like Rep. Rogers would be happy that we were trying to improve our targeting and to stop killing innocent people, but apparently making sure the people we target are actually guilty is just too much “red tape.” But it hasn’t stopped these killings. The source in the article notes that the “overwhelming majority” of the strikes they’re doing these days are based almost entirely on the NSA’s signals intelligence.

The report also reveals that the NSA has a program in which the drone itself has what’s basically its own phone cell attached to the drone, in order to better target a particular phone (note: not person, but phone) when dropping a bomb. The report also reveals another program, this one from the CIA, called SHENANIGANS (really), that maps out WiFi networks from the sky and tries to suck up any data it can. When this program was used in Yemen, the mission was called (again, no joke) VICTORYDANCE.

There’s a lot more in the article, which is well worth reading. It’s good to see more sources who are uncomfortable with what the NSA, CIA and others are doing getting in touch with Greenwald and others. It’s also worth noting that this guy claims he tried to raise these issues through the “proper channels” and was rebuffed.

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Comments on “New Whistleblower Reveals NSA Picking Drone Targets Based On Bad Data: 'Death By Unreliable Metadata'”

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50 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Say hello to your new bosses guys

So if they’re targeting SIM cards, and the terrorists know this, I imagine it’s only a matter of time before they start using this to get the US to target a completely innocent group, or a location packed with civilians, in order to drum up support for their cause against the ‘civilian murdering US military’.

Yeah, if you’re using a particular weapon/program, and your enemy can turn it around and use it against you that easily, I don’t care how much you like that weapon/program, time to either re-work it to remove that vulnerability, or if that’s not possible scrap it entirely.

David says:

Re: Say hello to your new bosses guys

The U.S. has no problems taking out complete wedding parties without the input of local terrorists.

Escalating the U.S. terror operations is not really necessary. An actually new development would be if they hacked the underlying data to make the drones turn on cellphones used by the US military itself.

Anonymous Coward says:

This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

I’d love for defenders of the NSA’s actions to explain why this targeted killing, based on metadata, with no trial to even determine the guilt of innocence of targets, is just the kind of a thing a free nation should be doing. And isn’t, you know, the kind of behavior you’d expect from a brutal dictatorship where just not being liked by the dictator can earn you a death sentence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

Uh…perhaps because it is a war theater and checking photo IDs before moving against hostiles is not an attractive or viable alternative.

Bravo…slow clap…this is the clearest expression of cowardice and the most complete betrayal of fundamental American values that I’ve seen for quite some time.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re: This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

That’s not how the laws of war work. You don’t get to blow up a building full of civilians just because an enemy might be inside, or is likely to be inside. This is the 21st century and we DO check IDs in war zones.

Positive ID is a requirement for the infantry in America, even in combat zones. You don’t get to shoot even known terrorists if they don’t have weapons.

What makes drones so special that, without any possible risk to themselves, they get to skip this requirement? It’s ridiculous and insulting to the men and women having to make that choice on the ground with their lives in danger. I imagine there’s going to be some issues when people who have been court-martialed for making a bad call when they were looking in someone’s eyes find out the rest of the government has been OK with “SIM card enemy ID.”

And they’d be perfectly right to be upset.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

Once upon a time, we were actually horrified and outraged when our troops engaged in the mass killing of civilians — see, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre

Now? Now the pathetic cringing cowards who are wetting their pants over the insignificant threat of “terrorism” would justify murdering millions in order to reassure themselves that somehow, magically, they’ll be safer as a result.

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

And yet, as recently as WWII, we didn’t care about carpet bombing civilians and dropping nukes on entire cities as part of war.

If you are at a meeting with a known terrorist and swap SIM cards with him, you’re not really getting my sympathy. If you somehow sell it on Afghanistan’s version of eBay including the SIM card to an unsuspecting party, then yeah, I have more of a problem with it. If you are a known terrorist going to a relative’s wedding, that could easily be seen as acceptable collateral damage by many people.

Similarly to the guy who has come forward, I don’t like this being used against US citizens but against foreign enemy combatants or the people meeting with them or their families, I have a hard time caring much about people whose whole life is hating and trying to kill me, often because I’m not a Muslim.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

‘Similarly to the guy who has come forward, I don’t like this being used against US citizens but against foreign enemy combatants or the people meeting with them or their families, I have a hard time caring much about people whose whole life is hating and trying to kill me, often because I’m not a Muslim.’

Sounds like you need to take a long look at yourself, and ask yourself just what makes your line of thinking any different than theirs.

If you object to killing a US citizen, but aren’t particularly bothered if a bomb should kill the family of a suspected, or even confirmed terrorist, then you’re essentially saying that being a US citizen should hold more weight on whether or not someone should be killed than whether or not the one killed is innocent or not, showing a pretty large amount of contempt for the whole concept of ‘justice’.

‘… often because I’m not a Muslim.’

Or maybe it has something to do with the line of thinking where blowing up a few civilians is seen as ‘acceptable collateral damage’, as long as your target is among the death toll.

‘Collateral damage is acceptable as long as we succeed in our objective’ is exactly the mindset those other terrorists use to justify killing innocent people, and going down that route makes the US nothing more than another terrorist group.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

I’m going to assume you have no idea what you’re talking about, or haven’t thought it through. Or maybe you’ve just bought into war propaganda so much you’ve started to dehumanize our enemies. But this is not how America is supposed to fight wars, at least according to our military doctrine.

Being a “terrorist” is not a death sentence, and does not automatically make you an enemy combatant. Being associated with a terrorist certainly doesn’t. Do you think that guy’s family cares that he is plotting against the U.S., a foreign country that has done nothing for them? Of course not. Why does that make them deserve death? Should we start executing the families of murderers, because maybe they still visit their family member in prison?

WWII is a horrible example. That war became a massive murder-fest where military tactics were replaced with revenge. The sad part? Carpet bombings were ineffective. Read the history. They caused a lot of damage, but rarely affected the targeted nation’s fighting capability on both sides. It was too imprecise to hit the military infrastructure and all bombing civilians did was make the soldiers fight harder and more desperately. You don’t win wars that way…it’s not only inhumane, it’s ineffective.

We have a better class of soldier now, and a better class of military. This sort of thing detracts from that, and undermines our greater military objective. It saddens me to know this has been going on, and saddens me more that there are fellow American citizens applauding it.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: This isn't the behavior of a dictatorship, how?

Uh…perhaps because it is a war theater and checking photo IDs before moving against hostiles is not an attractive or viable alternative.

When you consider that Leonard Chehire was prepared to risk his own life during a bombing raid in order to give civlians a chance to escape then it looks like your moral compass is a bit skewed in the direction of cowardice.

CopyAndPasteProgrammer (profile) says:

CIA/NSA Murder by Video Game

NEW RULES OF ENGAGEMENT FOR USE OF DRONES

Each time collateral damage occurs the drone pilot, CIA Director and NSA Director shall be executed without a trial.

Each time no collateral damage occurs the drone pilot, CIA Director and NSA Director shall be executed without a trial.

No Drone attacks are authorized until new CIA Director and NSA Director are confirmed by 2/3 vote of the Senate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Is this what they mean by “precision” strike?
Not that the rocket they use magicaly doesnt affect the people around the “target”, but on reliable metadata indentifying the “right” “target”.

Good thing the metadata is reliable then, collateral damage is such a non issue /s

this is the kind of thing “secret interpretation” would allow governments to get away with, not guarateed to do, but the possibility to do………why the fuck would you allow the POSSIBILITY, when all you have to do is to NOT support a government that thinks its ok to secretely interpetrate anything in anyway that would suit them in any given situation, and rights respected is NO requirement

Anonymous Coward says:

INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY

When did they make this thing illegal, or do they not follow their own laws any longer, have they even, ever followed them……how, after continous examples of them not following their own laws, are we to trust that they ever did………real laws, honest laws, not artificial laws, your suppose to follow them ALL, break one, then you might aswell break them all

Unanimous Prime says:

death by lottery

I hope their next meeting requires the same attendee list, and merely not a subset. It will be wrong-numbers for all after this mix up…

?They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,? the former drone operator says. ?That?s how they confuse us.?

Confuses me why they’d want to go back to calling a phone rather than a person. Like 1989.

Also confuses me why they’d want to do all that phonebook admin. Sure it seems slightly safer, but it really chews significantly into your murderdeathkill time.

Meanwhile if US dronestrikes go hit all those SIMs, they execute “mostly” bad guys. Mostly.

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