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Careful with those SIM cards, guys!

First Look's first article (and, apparently, magazine) is out with an article by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill:

According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a [some] person is believed to be using.

The drone operator, who agreed to discuss the top-secret programs on the condition of anonymity, was a member of JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force, which is charged with identifying, capturing or killing terrorist suspects in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Interesting they've got a drone operator as a source, eh? Obama must be really pissed off about that, and he takes such things very personally.

His account is bolstered by top-secret NSA documents previously provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is also supported by a former drone sensor operator with the U.S. Air Force, Brandon Bryant, who has become an outspoken critic of the lethal operations in which he was directly involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

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.”

Funny. Rather like a suburban key party, except with database keys (the unique identifier of the SIM, used as a selector by the NSA), and with a rather different outcome envisaged.

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. According to the former drone operator, the geolocation cells at the NSA that run the tracking program – known as Geo Cell –sometimes facilitate strikes without knowing whether the individual in possession of a tracked cell phone or SIM card is in fact the intended target of the strike.

“Once the bomb lands or a night raid happens, you know that phone is there,” he says. “But we don’t know who’s behind it, who’s holding it. It’s of course assumed that the phone belongs to a human being who is nefarious and considered an ‘unlawful enemy combatant.’ This is where it gets very shady.”

The former drone operator also says that he personally participated in drone strikes where the identity of the target was known, but other unknown people nearby were also killed.

“They might have been terrorists,” he says. “Or they could have been family members who have nothing to do with the target’s activities.”

Obama keeps whacking civilians; just like Bush, he's treating the whole world as a war zone. There is absolutely no way the United States is going to be able to avoid the karmic hammer on this one (known as "blowback" in the trade). All it's going to take is one really pissed off kid whose family Obama randomly slaughtered, and ten or twenty years from now, BOOM!

Of course, from the standpoint of the permanent war economy, that's not a bug. It's a feature. Gotta keep that self-licking ice cream cone licking itself. Will the Ministry of Fear please pick up the white courtesy phone?

NOTE Hilariously, Kos threw First Look a link, and the site goes down -- though, to be fair, the whole world probably hit the site at once. Just goes to show that even a squillionaire like Omidyar can't buy decent tech these days. I'd suggest that's because there's very little to be had.

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albrt's picture
Submitted by albrt on

I wonder how many targeted individuals have used this to take out rivals. Go to a meeting, accidentally leave your cell phone, your rival gets martyred.