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Death By Metadata: The NSA's Secret Role In the US Drone Strike Program 202

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Glenn Greenwald reports at his new independent news site 'The Intercept' that according to a former drone operator for the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the NSA often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. 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 technology has been responsible for taking out terrorists and networks of people facilitating improvised explosive device attacks against US 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 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 while other 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. As a result, even when the agency correctly identifies and targets a SIM card belonging to a terror suspect, the phone may actually be carried by someone else, who is then killed in a strike. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which uses a conservative methodology to track drone strikes, estimates that at least 2,400 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have been killed by unmanned aerial assaults under the Obama administration. Greenwald's source says 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. 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.' Whether or not Obama is fully aware of the errors built into the program of targeted assassination, he and his top advisers have repeatedly made clear that the president himself directly oversees the drone operation and takes full responsibility for it."
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Death By Metadata: The NSA's Secret Role In the US Drone Strike Program

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  • by Stormy Dragon ( 800799 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @07:32PM (#46213653) Homepage

    Do you really know if you're the first person to have used the particular SIM in your phone? Sure the vendor said it was new, but do you really know? Particularly if you live in a third world country where there's no big-name corporate retailers?

  • Missing the point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 10, 2014 @07:35PM (#46213659)

    The much more significant point would seem to be that the use of military assets to bomb civilian criminals is not the sort of thing the U.S. government is supposed to have the authority to do.

    These "terrorists" sound like they're criminals not soldiers, and as such they should be a matter for the Afghani police. They should be apprehended, brought to trial and if found guilty sentenced according to Afghani law.

    Whether it a drone that fires the missile, or a cell phone meta-data-mining program that provides the target is rather less important than the fact that blowing up a building to kill a target is an act of war and really not an appropriate solution.

  • by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Monday February 10, 2014 @07:53PM (#46213753)

    What makes you think A is really X's friend and not some random guy that bought what they thought was a new SIM and which turns out to be used one last owned by X?

    PR-wise, it doesn't matter because we (USofA!) will still claim that we killed their #2 or #3 sub-commander.

    But you do raise an interesting point. Could those SIM cards be sold/donated to the enemies of X? So we (USofA!) end up killing X's enemies for him?

    Cut the speaker and display wires (no sound and no lights) and you now have a "homing beacon" for a drone attack that can be hidden just about anywhere.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 10, 2014 @08:04PM (#46213823)

    Actually most folks on this planet are pretty nice. Unless -of course- you start randomly bombing them, or steal their resources, or invade their country. Then they stop being quite as nice. Look at New Zealand. They don't go around pissing people off in the first place, so they never get attacked :-P

  • by Stormy Dragon ( 800799 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @08:04PM (#46213825) Homepage

    It sounds like you ARE a man who would have no compunction murdering an entire family.

  • by linuxrocks123 ( 905424 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @08:06PM (#46213833) Homepage Journal

    If you think terrorists are scary, you should never drive or get in a car ever again, because doing that is much more likely to get you killed than the big bad oh-so-scary terrorists you're going on about.

    Is the world "scary"? Well, everyone dies eventually, and I guess death is scary, so sure. What's scariest about it? Cancer and heart disease. Yup. If you're going to worry about stuff that could kill you, worry about cancer and heart disease. Because it's about 80% likely that that is what will kill you. Terrorists well let's see they're like #2000 on the list of stuff that is likely to get you killed, if that. So, no, it is not we who are not understanding what's happening around us. It is you who needs a crash course in statistics. Badly.


  • by NoImNotNineVolt ( 832851 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @08:12PM (#46213883) Homepage
    Yes, the world is a dangerous place. It was a dangerous place 200 years ago too. More dangerous, by any metric. Yet we still banded together in the name of freedom and not only shrugged off our cloak of protection (England) but actually engaged it in war, in the name of freedom. Yes, indeed, there was a day when we consciously gave up safety for freedom. How far we have come...

    There was a time when people understood that safety wasn't the holy grail we should be chasing after. That no matter how much you give up, you can never be truly, totally safe. That some things are more important than safety. Cattle are safe. Their protectors guarantee this to a great extent. Not only are they protected from predators, they're also protected from disease and have all their routine needs for food and shelter met. Is that the type of existence we should be striving for?

    I don't believe your claims, but let's forget about that. Let's say that your claims are all indisputably true. Why should I be any more scared of these monsters that threaten to take my life than I am of my own government, which is actually succeeding in taking my freedom?

    Are you one of those people that believes that life in bondage is more valuable than death in the name of freedom? How do you reconcile your stance with the attitude that prevailed at the founding of this country, which Patrick Henry summarized in 1775 with the words: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
  • by TheGratefulNet ( 143330 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @08:30PM (#46213965)


    I fear what my own government can do to me FAR more than I fear any 'terrorist'. and the chances of a US authority figure fucking us over (cops, judges, politicians, etc) is likely in our lifetimes while being hit by a terrorist is extremely unlikely.

    we are tired of this 'rule by fear'. we understand you like to control us that way, but we are hip to your bullshit and one day, the tides will turn and your 'culture of fear' won't be so popular anymore.

  • by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @08:58PM (#46214123)

    You don't understand the problem, it isn't about being nice, or anything wrong you might have done to them. They are ultimately going to come after New Zealand because New Zealand doesn't conform to the rules they demand you live under. Do you know anything about the age of Islamic conquest, such as when they invaded Europe or took Constantinople? That is what they are about, their goal is a Muslim world even if it takes force of arms. You don't want them to get stronger.

    Al Qaeda-Trained Terrorists in New Zealand, Prime Minister Says []

  • by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @09:18PM (#46214251)

    Do you see this news story?

    17 Beheaded in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan for Attending Wedding Party with Dancing []

    They would gladly do it to you, just like they did it to those 17, and to Daniel Pearl []. Their goal is to impose that sort of rule on the entire world even if it takes 1,000 years. As of today there are people willing to put their body between you and them, putting their life and limb and risk, to prevent them from endangering you. Frankly, I'm not sure that the sacrifice of any of them is worth you. But they still do it. So it would be great if you would either grow up, or stop providing evidence you may be a moral idiot and a fool. (I realize that asking you to show some gratitude for the defense of your life is wasted breath. Some people only learn the hard way. [])

  • by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <> on Monday February 10, 2014 @09:21PM (#46214275) Homepage

    The men and women at NSA, CIA, and DOD are protecting you against monsters.

    The U.S.'s brutal and stupid foreign policy, carried out by the NSA, CIA, DOD, et al., does at least as much -- possibly more -- to create monsters than protect us from them. It's a wonderful cycle for the military/industrial/security complex: the complex fscks over nation A, nation A gets angry and makes aggressive noise, the complex points at nation A and says, "See? See? Danger! Feed the complex so we can protect you!"

    Of course kicking the hornet's nest and then telling people, "Hey, we need to go kick hornet's nests because look at how dangerous these hornets are!" is hardly an American invention. But we are the current masters of it for sure.

  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Monday February 10, 2014 @09:43PM (#46214387) Journal

    For the night is dark, and full of terrors.

    So, who are we going to hoist onto the sacrificial pyre today?

Money can't buy love, but it improves your bargaining position. -- Christopher Marlowe