Category: Digital Technology

Digital Technology, International Affairs

The OpenGlobal Show #1

This week, in partnership with Google, we launched a new feature on OpenCanada.org called the OpenGlobal Show.  Each episode, I will connect with a panel of friends/colleagues/experts on international affairs through Google Hangout.

For the first episode, the panelists were:

  • Ivan Sigal, Executive Director, Global Voices
  • Joshua Foust, International affairs writer, analyst, and columnist for PBS
  • Katherine Maher, Director of strategy and engagement at the digital rights organization Access

Given the weeks events, I wanted to dive into three moments in the days following the Boston bombing that I think represent changes in the way the public engages with breaking events:

  1. Yesterday: Was the Reddit community manhunt a positive use of the released photo?
  2. Last night: Is this our first post-cable national news story?
  3. This morning: What do we know about the suspects’ backgrounds, and can we process these assumptions usefully in real time?
  4. Next week: What will be drowned out by this story next week?

The video of the first episode is below, and the link to the OpenCanada.org home for the show is here.

Digital Technology, International Affairs

Buzz Kill: The psychological impact of living under drones

Imagine that you are living somewhere in Pakistan, Yemen, or Gaza where the U.S. suspects a terrorist presence.  Day and night, you hear a constant buzzing in the sky.  Like a lawnmower.  You know that this flying robot is watching everything you do.  You can always hear it.  Sometimes, it fires missiles into your village.  You are told the robot is targeting extremists, but its missiles have killed family, friends, and neighbors.  So, your behavior changes: you stop going out, you stop congregating in public, and you likely start hating the country that controls the flying robot.  And you probably start to sympathize a bit more with the people these robots, called drones, are monitoring.

As reports of the Obama administration’s policy on the use of drones to target American citizens trickle out, infuriating libertarians and flummoxing liberals, their global use continues unabated.

The drone program is now one of the signature foreign policy initiatives of the Obama Administration, and its scale is significant: since 9/11, over 4,000 drones have been employed in surveillance, reconnaissance, and lethal attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the Defense Department will spend about $36.9 billion across its different branches on 730 new medium-sized and large drones through 2020.  This does not include the wide range of experimental research into such technologies as swarm drones, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  These small bird or insect sizes drones, capable of flying in coordinated masses, will challenge current conceptions of weaponry, and push the bounds of ubiquity in modern warfare.

The reports of the numbers of people killed by American drones vary.  Senator Lindsey Graham recently remarked, “We’ve killed 4,700 … Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.” Much of the conversation about the impact of these strikes has rightly focused on the moral and legal costs of these civilian casualties, but it is a mistake to judge the impact of the U.S. drone program only by the number of sorties or kills. When this is the sole basis for evaluation, it is easy to argue that there is nothing particularly unique about this form of warfare – that these people would have been targeted and killed by U.S. Special Forces or manned aircrafts had the drone program not been in place. But this type of analysis misses a defining characteristic of the drone program that makes it qualitatively different from the less sophisticated weaponry that it is replacing: ubiquitous drone use blurs the line between citizen and militants.

The psychological impact of drone surveillance, when combined with the civilian casualties we already know occur during strikes, leads to significant negative strategic costs that need to be incorporated into our assessment of the drone program.

Drones don’t enter into a battlefield like a strike fighter or Special Forces team, quickly taking out the target, and then leaving.  Drones are omnipresent.  They hover over villages and cities, watching, then killing, then watching again. Like Big Brother. What are the human and strategic costs of this uninterrupted drone presence?

This infringement of basic privacy, combined with potential lethality, has a profound psychological effect on those living with drones overhead.  There have been a wide range of studies investigating this phenomenon (see list at bottom of the post); Living Under Dronesa study conducted in the northern tribal region of Waziristan, is by far one of the most comprehensive ones. Taken up at the request of the U.K.-based non-profit Reprieve, this study was conducted by lawyers and researchers at Stanford University (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, IHRCRC) and New York University (Global Justice Clinic), with help from a local Pakistani non-profit, Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR).

The findings of this study are striking and, more importantly, truly disturbing.  For instance, a vast majority of people reported being perpetually scared of drone strikes, day and night.  Just the constant noise above makes people experience bouts of emotional trauma and symptoms of anxiety. And these symptoms are more widespread than previously thought – there are reports of men, women, and children too terrified to sleep at night. Medical practitioners have asserted that these anxiety-related disorders amongst the people of Waziristan often manifest themselves in the form of physical illness, ranging from headaches to heart attacks, even suicides.

Drone-induced anxieties are profoundly impacting the way these people live their lives.  For example, most kids in Waziristan no longer attend school. People avoid daily activities such as grocery shopping, farming, and driving for fear of drone strikes. One psychiatrist argues that this behaviour is symptomatic of “anticipatory anxiety” – a psychological phenomenon that causes people to constantly worry about their immediate future (this is very common in conflict zones). People experiencing anticipatory anxiety report having emotional breakdowns, running indoors for safety, hiding during the day, having nightmares, and other anxiety-related problems which dramatically affect their ability to live their lives.

A striking account of this effect comes from a New York Times journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban. From Living Under Drones:

In his account, David Rohde described both the fear the drones inspired among his captors, as well as among ordinary civilians: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.

Similar examples of psychological trauma exist in Gaza, where people report that drones disrupt their daily activities, making them feel powerless and unsafe. The emotional trigger/stressor identified by most Palestinians is the buzzing sound of the drones. Again, they report avoidance of social activities and tribal rituals, including weddings, funerals, and burial processes, and consequent disengagement from their communities.

Scientifically and medically speaking, this phenomenon can be explained as an outcome of unpredictability and uncontrollability. It is very akin to reactions to torture. In particular, some have argued that living under drones leads to psychological trauma based on the learning theory formulation of torturewhich states that exposure to inescapable and uncontrollable stressor events “that threaten physical and/or psychological well-being” lead to “a state of total helplessness.”

The broader impacts of drone use are revealing. They expose the false dichotomy between civilians and militants that underlies both the tactical decision-making process and much of the public debate about that process.  Drones do not only affect their intended “kills” – they affect the civilians literally caught in their kill zones, and those living under them in fear day and night.

There is a clear and undeniable moral dimension of this form of warfare.  But there are also real strategic costs.  What do the people living under drones, let alone those who have had family and friends killed, think about the countries operating them?   As one mental health professional remarked to a Living Under Drones researcher, “People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, a desire for revenge … So when you have these young boys and girls growing up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.”

As Ben Kiernan and I noted in an article that draws parallels between the use of airpower in Afghanistan to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, when U.S. bombs hit a civilian warehouse in Afghanistan in late 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded: “We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is.” There was laughter in the press gallery.

We continued:

The January 13, 2006 aerial strike by a U.S. predator drone on a village in Pakistan that killed women and children and inflamed local anti-U.S. political passions is a pertinent example of what continues to occur in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “collateral damage” that occurred in this case even undermined the positive sentiments previously created by billions of dollars of U.S. post-earthquake aid to that part of Pakistan. Aside from the killing of innocent civilians, how many new enemies does U.S. bombing create?

Drones may ultimately prove strategically beneficial.  They may even prove more palatable, in a human rights sense, than the alternatives.  But when we calculate their utility in war, we need to include a full accounting of the strategic costs, including the long-term implications of widespread psychological warfare.

Some important studies/sources and their findings/arguments:

  1. Living Under the Drones (Stanford Law and NYU Law)
  2. The Civilian Impact of Drones (Columbia Law School)
  3. Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2013 (Long War Journal)
  4. Drones and Physical and Psychological Implications of Global Theatre of War (Medact)
  5. Year of the Drones (New America Foundation)
  6. Predator Drones, Empathy, and the President (Psychology Today)
  7. Drone Strikes or Mass Torture – A Learning Theory Analysis (Metin Basoglu)
  8. The Drone Wars: 9/11-Inspired Combat Leans Heavily on Robot Aircraft (Scientific American)
  9. Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals (Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

This article is cross-posted on opencanada.org

 

Digital Technology, International Affairs

The Surveillance Arms Race

There is a new arms race emerging between people who want to communicate freely and securely and governments that want to monitor and limit this communication. In democratic countries, this government interference ranges from the mass monitoring of telecoms to flirtations with cutting off social media flows and shutting down cell towers in protest areas. When autocratic countries face crisis and conflict, however, the battle for control over communication is more troublesome and the risks are more acute.

Linking the interference being run by governments in democratic and autocratic countries is the technologies being deployed by both. And therein lies a paradox: The tools that enable autocratic governments to monitor and control their citizens are produced by western technology companies.

Much like the arms trade, this often creates an awkward scenario in which western countries end up supporting opposition movements that are fighting against technology bought from western countries. Sometimes this collusion backfires in provocative and potentially controversial ways. For example, in Syria, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed by a mortar attack that was most likely carried out by targeting their satellite phones. It is widely held that this technology was provided by western companies.

There are many recent examples of this phenomenon, especially within the context of the Arab Spring. High profile technology companies such as Gamma (UK) and FinSpy offered surveillance services to regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria. Google Engineers discovered contract proposals between Gamma and the Mubarak regime – €250,000 worth of spy technology  that would “enable them [Egypt] to intercept dissidents’ emails, record audio and video chats, and take copies of computer hard drives.”  The SpyFiles operation by Wikileaks and Privacy International further revealed 287 documents indicating that these surveillance companies such French arms dealer, Amesys, sold both spyware and malware technologies (including Trojans) to the Gaddafi regime.

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has uncovered a wide range of examples of complicity between western companies and authoritarian regimes. Most recently, it showed that devices manufactured by Blue Coat Systems, a California-based hardware company, were in use by 61 countries, with histories of human rights abuses. In 2011, it detailed how Syria used Blue Coat software to both censor the Internet and root out particular activities linked to pro-democracy activists.

Western governments use this same type of commercial filtering and monitoring technology to monitor and restrict the online behaviour of their employees. This means that western governments could very well be implicitly supporting private companies that develop technologies that assist the oppressive regimes the oppose.

Indeed, if one were to attend a trade show for such technologies, as a Washington Post journalist recently did, one would find more than 35 United States federal agencies buying the very same technologies as the autocrats. As reported in the Atlantic, Jerry Lucas, who runs a trade show called ISS world, which is known as the “Wiretapper’s Ball”  was asked by the Guardian whether he would be comfortable with Zimbabwe and North Korea buying technology at his trade shows.  He responded, “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. “That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

The U.S. State Department, which has spent $70 million promoting internet freedom abroad, is part of a government that has few regulations on the trade of the technology that prevents such freedom. A bill has been before the United States Congress to prevent the sale of this technology to “Internet-restricting countries” since 2006, but the bill faces implementation challenges, as the list of countries in question now includes most nation states.  And there are other real limits to what western governments can do, due to both the scale of the industry, estimated at $5 billion a year globally, and the limits of contemporary international law.

There have been some positive steps: Last year a U.S. congressional subcommittee passed the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), “creating a new transparency standard for Internet companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges and operating in countries that substantially censor or control the Internet.”  The GOFA would force U.S. companies listed on the U.S. Stock exchange to release information on their human rights due diligence.

Of course, these technologies have the potential to be used for both positive and negative impact (they are dual-use). This poses a particular challenge to governments trying to use these technologies for good. For example, the U.S. government is funding Commotion Wireless, a sophisticated hacking project that seeks to enable activists by undermining internet censorship in countries such as Syria and Iran, however the FBI recently warned that these same anonymizing and encryption tools might be “indicators of terrorist activities.”

The question for policymakers, then, is whether anything beyond challenging regulatory measures can be done to overcome the dual-use dilemma, or whether it is simply a fact of life in a radically open operating environment. Whatever the reply, a relatively simple place to start would be to support the development of technologies that empower individuals, rather than enabling the production and trade of tools used for surveillance and oppression.

For example, a Swedish research team recently developed a new tool that allows Tor communication (a tool that anonymizes internet use) to be cloaked within services like Skype in order to circumvent recent changes to the Chinese “firewall” that had compromised those who used those services. Similarly, a team at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, in partnership with Stanford Computer Science, has built an app called Dispatch that allows for secure communication between journalists and their sources in areas of conflict. Another app, Silent Circle, allows users to send encrypted files of up to 60 megabytes via text message. These are tools that our governments should support. One can even imagine a virtual embassy incentivizing such projects. Too often, however, these surveillance-evading tools ruffle the feathers of autocratic and democratic governments alike.

What we are ultimately seeing is an arms race between oppressive governments and their citizens. It is high time that our democratically elected governments cease supporting, either tacitly or explicitly, the technologies enabling government surveillance.

Crossposted on OpenCanada.org