Death by Metadata
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Cell phones have been accused of many things, from causing cancer and brain tumors to silencing witty repartee at dinner parties. Two recent headlines about drone warfare reveal, however, how embedded everyday consumer technology, such as cell phones, is with the global war on terrorism. 

In a recent piece for the Intercept — the new publication edited by Nation Institute fellow Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and published by Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media — Scahill and Greenwald expose the American military use of metadata to locate suspected terrorists. By tracking the SIM cards in the cell phones of wanted targets, military personnel in America can monitor their locations and call in drone strikes against them. 

Yet this method, Scahill and Greenwald claim, is "an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people." Targets have begun swapping cell phones and SIM cards and, without on-the-ground reconnaissance, it is impossible to know who is actually being attacked. Scahill and Greenwald interviewed a former Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) drone operator:

[He] is adamant that 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 increasing reliance on the surveillance tactic.... 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.

But cellphones are also being used as a tool to bring attention to the frequency of US drone strikes. Metadata+, a new app designed by data artist and web developer Josh Begley, sends users a notification every time there is a drone strike, anywhere around the world. Presented to resemble Apple text messaging format, the app gives the date, location, and victims of each attack, as well as a map displaying the sites of previous attacks.

Begley hopes that the app can change people's perceptions of war. "For me," he told the Atlantic, "borrowing the visual vernacular of Apple's expertly built interface opens up the potential for a different kind of seeing. If the folks on the other side of our missiles are presented to us in the same places we see pictures of our loved ones...or communicate with our friends...might that nudge me to learn a little more about the contours of covert war?"

The app reflects the link between consumer technology and drone strikes. In a recent article for the journal Radical Philosophy, Derek Gregory, Peter Wall Distinguished Professor of Political Geography at the University of British Columbia, argues that, far from being purely a tool for foreign warfare, "there is an ever expanding array of peaceful uses for unarmed drones and even those that I have described [in my essay] are, like other modern military systems, embedded in a series of nominally civilian technologies that most of us take for granted."     

It took Begley over a year and half and several different titles to get Metadata+ approved by the Apple Store. In fact, Begley only succeeded in getting the app into the Apple Store by initially submitting it without content and then, after it had been accepted, adding the archive of drone attacks.

Begley told the Atlantic that in the time the project had languished in limbo it changed from being focused on disruption to a reflection on maintaining a historical record. "How do you represent information about people you'll never know — which is effectively metadata gleaned from English-language news reports — in a way that is intuitive and chewable but also unsettling?" 

For more information on the links between metadata and drones — and the NSA's role in assassinations overseas — watch Nation Books author Jeremy Scahill on Democracy Now!:


Tags: cell phone, drones, greenwald, metadata, scahill, war

    • Ben Pokross
    • Ben Pokross is a Winter 2014 intern for Nation Books. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in English and French literature and lives in Brooklyn.


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