Snowden, Greenwald Protest Phone-a-Drone Program

The anti-NSA duo is warning of deadly data errors.

The U.S. is launching lethal drone strikes based only on cell phone location data, according to new allegations.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Feb. 10, 2014, 11:04 a.m.

The U.S. in­creas­ingly is tar­get­ing leth­al drone strikes based on cell-phone loc­a­tion data rather than on-the-ground in­tel­li­gence, ac­cord­ing to the latest al­leg­a­tions from journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald and former NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden.

A former drone op­er­at­or told Gre­en­wald that the mil­it­ary uses the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s con­tro­ver­sial phone metadata pro­gram to loc­ate sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists. That in­tel­li­gence is then used to call in drone strikes, which has led to ci­vil­ian deaths when the phone is no longer in the pos­ses­sion of the ori­gin­al tar­get.

From the re­port:

Some [tar­gets] 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 former drone op­er­at­or al­leged that the mil­it­ary has car­ried out strikes without veri­fy­ing that the phone be­ing tracked is still be­ing used by the ori­gin­al tar­get. “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,” he said.

In some cases, the drones them­selves help find ter­ror­ists’ phones, act­ing as fake cell-phone towers to grab the sig­nal of a tar­get’s device. Once the phone is found, it can be tracked to with­in 30 feet. That tac­tic is es­pe­cially com­mon in Ye­men, where on-the-ground in­tel­li­gence is hard to come by.

Mean­while, AP re­ports that an Amer­ic­an cit­izen who is a mem­ber of al-Qaida is pos­sibly be­ing tar­geted for a drone strike. It’s un­clear if phone metadata is be­ing used to track the sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ist.

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