It was a selfie that painted the bullseye on the lance corporal’s back.
War is, between the moments of heightened life-and-death stakes, a lot of waiting around, and since the dawn of the camera phone, one way people have passed that waiting around time is through self portraits. “I came, I waited, I waited some more.”
Had the Marine simply taken the picture, this would not have made news, but the lance took the picture and then shared it. The posted selfie, taken during a training exercise, was enough information for the commanders to determine the artillery unit was found and exposed, and summarily ‘killed’ in the training exercise.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton, reporting from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and this fortnight I want to talk about war in an era of infinite information.
The above story of the lance corporal’s selfie comes from Gina Harkins, and takes place at the confluence of two inextricably linked trends. First is the ubiquity with which modern life leaves a digital trail. The second is the way that digital trail, utterly benign in civilian life, can unravel secrets and upend the whole of spycraft.
There is perhaps no greater example of this paradigm shift than the fact that, at the same time governments are able to collect more and more comprehensive information on just about anybody, the CIA has found itself often unable to send people into the field under a plausible cover.
In a story that broke late last month at Yahoo News, reporter Jenna McLaughlin and Zach Dorfman detail how everything from selfies to a lack of selfies imperil traditional spycraft. The modern person is an online person, and there is an expectation that everyone has a digital trail that matches their life. This in turn makes cover identities much harder to fabricate. What once could have been done with a fake passport and a fake business card can be unraveled in seconds on Google.
That scenario assumes an individual from the intelligence community even gets a chance to enter the country untracked. Facial recognition software, ever-present surveillance cameras, and biometric identification can leave a person known before they realize they are being scanned. That’s to say nothing of the digital signature and presence created by cell phones, which are always identifying their location to nearby cell towers and create unique signatures with just a few exchanges.
All of this creates the scenario where, as the United States prepares to send more forces into Iraq, the Army is banning specific apps from government phones, and banning soldiers from bringing laptops and cell phones with them.
Soldiers, at least, operate overtly. Not broadcasting their exact location on the battlefield or in-country is maybe enough, in a given moment, to still benefit from security through obscurity. But as the exercise at 29 Palms showed, one post slipping through is possibly enough for the adversary to find and identify a target, and act on it.
As much as the military of the future will be about collecting and harnessing data, to survive the present, there is also a dual emphasis on having a light digital footprint in the field.
Killing time without posting selfies may be incrementally more boring. It is also incrementally less deadly.
° 1. TOO MANY COMPUTERS
In late December, the Army, following the advice of the Navy, banned TikTok from government-owned phones. The video recording-and-sharing app, popular especially among millennials and recruiting-age members of Generation Z, is owned by China-based ByteDance, though it says it keeps its video servers in Singapore and the United States. There is a complicated question about data privacy and security, and about what gets collected and where that data gets stored. There is a simpler answer, adopted first by the Indian Navy and later by the 82nd Airborne: if a military is worried about servicemembers using apps, the most complete solution is to stop them from using phones or computers.
° 2. NOT ENOUGH DATA
Much as modern life is awash in data, the specific kinds of incidents battlefield computers need to train on do not lend themselves to clean data capture. This is partly the nature of modern combat: spontaneous engagements punctuate boring patrols with a flash of change, often in communications-degraded conditions, and the information that survives might not be useful. It is also, as incidents go, rare. Collecting information from people opening web pages is easy; collecting sensor outputs for vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks at dusk is trickier. One answer to this problem, discussed at the 2019 Automation and Autonomy Symposium, put on by the Association of the United States army, is to use synthetic data. Training algorithms on virtually generated data gives those algorithms a shot at adapting to rare but important circumstances.
° 3. ROBOT DOGS
Four legged animals have accompanied humans into battle for thousands of years. Building machines with the same flexibility, and legged utility, is a tricky process, especially since these robot dogs are both sensing and moving machines. A range of approaches to K-9 design experiment with where to put the sensor burden, and how to best use the robot dog as a platform.
° 4. A MAN A LAMP A BACKRONYM
Today’s backronym comes from the European Union. The “Advanced hoListic Adverse Drone Detection, Identification and Neutralization” program, or ALADDIN, is “an E.U.-funded initiative to develop a sophisticated counter-drone detection and neutralization System,” according to the latest analysis of the counter-drone industry by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
That’s all for this week, my Tomorrow Warthogs. Any tips about the weird drone swarms in northeastern Colorado, email me at email@example.com.