Are you familiar with aerostats? They’re blimp-shaped balloons loaded with cameras and sensors. They float above any given “theater of war,” delivering surveillance data. The data is used by analysts to find insurgents and to kill them. In areas of war, they kill terrorists. What if this God-in-the-sky surveillance is brought home to America and can recognize the color of your hat?
In 2012 an aerostat used in southern Afghanistan called a 22M “could make out an unusual modification on the buttstock of an AK-47 from 2 miles away,” recalls an analyst in WIRED’s “Palantir’s God’s-Eye View of Afghanistan” an excerpt from the book First Platoon, by Annie Jacobsen. But what is that raw data good for if you can’t understand it or organize it?
That raw data gets processed, organized, and aggregated into an army intelligence product thanks to software developed by Palantir Technologies. Launched almost two decades ago with seed money from the CIA, the Silicon Valley startup had managed to solve a problem plaguing the Pentagon: After years of accumulating surveillance video captured by drones, airships, and aircraft flying over Iraq, the armed forces had, quite literally, millions of hours of footage sitting in archives taking up space. ‘We’re going to find ourselves in the not too distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data,’ Lieutenant General David Deptula warned colleagues in 2009. In one single year, the Air Force alone had collected more video footage in Iraq than a person could watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over the course of 24 continuous years. What to do with all that information? Palantir’s software could sift through volumes of raw, or unstructured, data, then organize and structure it in a way that made search and discovery features possible. Search for, and discovery of, say, a man in a purple hat.
In the story, the man in a purple hat stands out on video and is tracked because of his actions on the ground, literally. When he breaks three rules of engagement with the ground, such as digging, planting, and cultivating–not carrots but an IED–his actions meet what’s called 429 status. “429 status is what happens when a person of interest completes three ‘interactions with the ground.’ These are actions that allow for that individual to be moved out of civilian status and into insurgent status—to be targeted and killed legally according to army rules of engagement,” explains Jacobsen.
The story continues with our analyst Kevin coming to the rescue of a man in a purple hat, who was a farmer, not an insurgent, when air support is called in to kill him. With five-minutes to make his case to call off the kill shot, Kevin explains how this is not the guy. Only an expert human analyst like Kevin, who happens to know this guy in the purple hat like family, including where, when, and how he sleeps, could tell the difference better than any algorithm. Only a human like Kevin could stop the murder of the poor innocent farmer that happened to be wearing a purple hat. It’s a scary story to think about, especially if algorithms and artificial intelligence are left to make the calls.
Action Line: Fast forward to today, where these aerostats could hover over your hometown. “Not gonna happen,” you say? Think about how this pandemic has opened our lives to big government. They’ll know when you let your dog out in the morning if they want to, no matter where you live.
THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC has pushed the use of military-grade surveillance technologies on American citizens, and to an alarming degree: On April 10, 2020, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) entered into a no-bid contract with Palantir Technologies to track the spread of the coronavirus. The goal of the HHS Protect Now program, explains former CIA officer Christopher Burgess, is to “bring disparate data sets together and provide better visibility to HHS on the spread of Covid.” HHS confirmed that the data that Palantir is now mining includes “diagnostic testing data, geographic testing data, [and] demographic statistics,” meaning information about individual American citizens’ health, location, family, and tribe. The initial HHS announcement said Palantir would have access to 187 data sets. That number has since grown to 225. Unknowns abound: What data is going into the Palantir system, how is it shared, with whom, and for how long? What safeguards are in place to prevent HHS from sharing identifiable personal data with its federal law enforcement partners—just as it did in 2017, with ICE?
“Given how tight-lipped both HHS and Palantir have been over the program, we don’t fully know,” says Lauren Zabierek, executive director of the Cyber Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Zabierek is a former Air Force officer who also served as a civilian analyst with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in three war zones, including in Kandahar in 2012. “I sincerely hope that HHS Protect Now will do nothing resembling finding and fixing certain entities,” she says, using military nomenclature for locating and killing IED emplacers in the war zone. “I hope that the data sets will only be used to understand the spread of the virus in the aggregate.” But of course how could we ever be sure of that? Machines make mistakes, the implications of which are both known and unknown. Just ask the man in the purple hat.
E.J. Smith - Your Survival Guy
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