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Use of NSA metadata to find drone targets kills civilians – Greenwald

Published time: February 10, 2014 14:28
NSA headquarters. Image from https://firstlook.org

NSA headquarters. Image from https://firstlook.org

The US is relying upon NSA metadata to identify targets for drone strikes, reports the Intercept. A former NSA operative said the tactic is flawed and the agency targets phones “in the hopes that the person on the other end of the missile is the bad guy.”

Citing documents leaked by Edward Snowden and testimonies from former Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) members, Glen Greenwald and colleague Jeremy Scahill have revealed the extent which the US military is using NSA intel to establish targets for drone strikes in an article in the Intercept.

The most common tactic employed by the NSA is known as ‘geolocation’, which entails locking on to the SIM card or handset of a suspected terrorist. A former drone sensor operator with the US Air Force, Brandon Bryant, told the Intercept that using the metadata led to inaccuracies that killed civilians.

The NSA uses a program called Geo Cell to follow potential targets and often do not verify whether the carrier of the phone is the intended target of the strike.

“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,”
Bryant told the Intercept – the nascent news site created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to “to hold the most powerful governmental and corporate factions accountable.”

Over the past five years the NSA “has played an increasingly central role in drone killing,” but the growing reliance on metadata to find insurgents is also targeting civilians. The analysis of the electronic surveillance leaves a lot of room for error and can kill “the wrong people.”

Moreover, the lack of operatives on the ground in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan means the JSOC is often not able to confirm the identity of the targets.

‘Gilgamesh’ and ‘Shenanigans’


Instead of accessing cellphone metadata through cell phone towers and internet service providers, the NSA uses a program called Gilgamesh. To be able to track the cellphones of potential targets a special device known as a ‘virtual base-tower transceiver’ has to be installed on the drone. The transceiver emits a signal that forces the target’s mobile to lock into the NSA’s system, allowing the target to be tracked to within 30 feet of their location.

As well as Gilgamesh, the NSA has developed a program known as ‘Shenanigans’ that acts like a giant cyber vacuum cleaner. A pod on an aircraft downloads massive amounts of information from any wireless networks, smart phones, computers, or other electronic devices that are within range.

Bryant told the Intercept the “JSOC acknowledges that it would be completely helpless without the NSA conducting mass surveillance on an industrial level.”

Noting that innocent people have “absolutely” been killed in these strikes, Bryant said that some terrorists have got wise to geo-tracking and have developed a number of tricks to elude the NSA. Taliban groups, he said, had been known to purposely distribute SIM cards among their organization to muddle 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,” said Bryant, adding the targets “might have been terrorists, or they could have been family members who have nothing to do with the target’s activities.”

The classified data paints a very different picture of the targeted killings to Washington’s stance on the matter. The White House maintains the strikes are conducted with the utmost precision and all possible measures are taken to minimize civilian casualties.

Last year President Obama claimed “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”