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
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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