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The Drone Wars Are Already Here

The skies of Syria, Yemen, and Libya swarm with armed and dangerous unmanned aerial vehicles. And the technology is spreading farther and farther afield. Three decades ago, drones were available to only the most technologically developed state military organizations. Today they’re everywhere, being used by weaker states and small military forces, as well as many non-state actors, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda. “We’re seeing a cycle of technological innovation regarding the use of drones and associated systems, and that cycle of techno-tactical adaptation and counter-adaptation will only hasten going forward,” says Raphael Marcus, a research fellow in the department of war studies at King’s College London.

The diffusion of such technology is leveling the playing field, says Marcus, author of Israel’s Long War With Hezbollah: Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire. He says that because armies no longer have the monopoly on the use of drones, surveillance technology, precision capabilities, and long-range missiles, other actors in the region are able to impose their will on the international stage. “The parameters have changed,” he says. That’s already leading to greater instability. For example, Hezbollah’s thwarted drone strike in August and increasingly sophisticated and more frequent drone attacks by Hamas raise the risk of another war with Israel; meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthi rebels made an impact on the global price of oil with a strike on Saudi Arabia, using 25 drones and missiles.

The Institute for Strategic Research in Paris has already recommended that NATO and European militaries ready themselves for drone threats in future conflicts. The institute also urged countries to cooperate on a joint research and development strategy to defend against the threat in a report issued in September.

Does that mean that future wars will be automated? “Drones will definitely be taking more important roles in the next few years, but they aren’t about to replace soldiers,” says Ben Nassi, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. For that to happen, he says, drones will need longer battery life and the development of a centralized computer command-and-control server that will allow a single person to control a swarm of drones, similar to how individual players manage their militaries in a computer game.

Ex-Google Engineer Says That Robot Weapons May Cause Accidental Mass Killings

“A former Google engineer who worked on the company’s infamous military drone project has sounded a warning against the building of killer robots,” reports Business Insider.

Laura Nolan had been working at Google four years when she was recruited to its collaboration with the US Department of Defense, known as Project Maven, in 2017, according to the Guardian. Project Maven was focused on using AI to enhance military drones, building AI systems which would be able to single out enemy targets and distinguish between people and objects. Google canned Project Maven after employee outrage, with thousands of employees signing a petition against the project and about a dozen quitting in protest. Google allowed the contract to lapse in March this year. Nolan herself resigned after she became “increasingly ethically concerned” about the project, she said…

Nolan fears that the next step beyond AI-enabled weapons like drones could be fully autonomous AI weapons. “What you are looking at are possible atrocities and unlawful killings even under laws of warfare, especially if hundreds or thousands of these machines are deployed,” she said…. Although no country has yet come forward to say it’s working on fully autonomous robot weapons, many are building more and more sophisticated AI to integrate into their militaries. The US navy has a self-piloting warship, capable of spending months at sea with no crew, and Israel boasts of having drones capable of identifying and attacking targets autonomously — although at the moment they require a human middle-man to give the go-ahead.

Nolan is urging countries to declare an outright ban on autonomous killing robots, similar to conventions around the use of chemical weapons.

Pentagon testing mass surveillance balloons across the US

The US military is conducting wide-area surveillance tests across six midwest states using experimental high-altitude balloons, documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reveal.

Up to 25 unmanned solar-powered balloons are being launched from rural South Dakota and drifting 250 miles through an area spanning portions of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri, before concluding in central Illinois.

Travelling in the stratosphere at altitudes of up to 65,000ft, the balloons are intended to “provide a persistent surveillance system to locate and deter narcotic trafficking and homeland security threats”, according to a filing made on behalf of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace and defence company.

The balloons are carrying hi-tech radars designed to simultaneously track many individual vehicles day or night, through any kind of weather.

A rival balloon operator World View recently announced that it had carried out multi-week test missions in which its own stratospheric balloons were able to hover over a five-mile-diameter area for six and a half hours, and larger areas for days at a time.

Ryan Hartman, CEO of World View, said that World View had also completed a dozen surveillance test missions for a customer it would not name, capturing data he would not specify.

“Obviously, there are laws to protect people’s privacy and we are respectful of all those laws,” Hartman said. “We also understand the importance of operating in an ethical way as it relates to further protecting people’s privacy.”

Pentagon Wants to Predict Anti-Trump Protests Using Social Media Surveillance

A series of research projects, patent filings, and policy changes indicate that the Pentagon wants to use social media surveillance to quell domestic insurrection and rebellion.

The social media posts of American citizens who don’t like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest US military-funded research. The research, funded by the US Army and co-authored by a researcher based at the West Point Military Academy, is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the US military’s role and influence on domestic intelligence.

The vast scale of this effort is reflected in a number of government social media surveillance patents granted this year, which relate to a spy program that the Trump administration outsourced to a private company last year. Experts interviewed by Motherboard say that the Pentagon’s new technology research may have played a role in amendments this April to the Joint Chiefs of Staff homeland defense doctrine, which widen the Pentagon’s role in providing intelligence for domestic “emergencies,” including an “insurrection.”

It’s no secret that the Pentagon has funded Big Data research into how social media surveillance can help predict large-scale population behaviours, specifically the outbreak of conflict, terrorism, and civil unrest.

Much of this research focuses on foreign theatres like the Middle East and North Africa — where the 2011 Arab Spring kicked off an arc of protest that swept across the region and toppled governments.

Since then, the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars finding patterns in posts across platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and beyond to enable the prediction of major events.

But the Pentagon isn’t just interested in anticipating surprises abroad. The research also appears to be intended for use in the US homeland.

Datasets for the research were collected using the Apollo Social Sensing Tool, a real-time event tracking software that collects and analyses millions of social media posts.

The tool was originally developed under the Obama administration back in 2011 by the US Army Research Laboratory and US Defense Threat Reduction Agency, in partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Illinois, IBM, and Caterva (a social marketing company that in 2013 was folded into a subsidiary of giant US government IT contractor, CSC). Past papers associated with the project show that the tool has been largely tested in foreign theatres like Haiti, Egypt, and Syria.

But the use of the Apollo tool to focus on protests in the US homeland has occurred under the Trump administration. The ‘election’ dataset compiled using Apollo for the 2018 US Army-funded study is comprised of 2.5 million tweets sent between October 26, 2016, and December 20, 2016, using the words “Trump”, “Clinton,” and “election.”

Tweets were geolocated to focus on “locations where protests occurred following the election” based on user profiles. Locations were then triangulated against protest data from “online news outlets across the country.”

The millions of tweets were used to make sense of the “frequencies of the protests in 39 cities” using 18 different ways of measuring the “size, structure and geography” of a network, along with two ways of measuring how that network leads a social group to become “mobilized,” or take action.

In short, this means that “the social network can be a predictor of mobilization, which in turn is a predictor of the protest.” This pivotal finding means that extensive real-time monitoring of American citizens’ social media activity can be used to predict future protests.

Mysterious drone swarm attacks

Moscow says the US supplied the technology behind the drone attack, but Washington denies involvement. In the most recent and unusual of the attacks, a swarm of armed drones descended from an unknown location in the early hours of Saturday morning onto Russia’s vast Khmeimim airbase in northwestern Latakia province, the headquarters of Russia’s military operations in Syria.

All watched over by machines, Surveillance Valley

Google building military drones, Facebook watching us all, and Amazon making facial recognition software for the police, need to be understood not as aberrations. Rather, they are business as usual.

Much of the early history of computers, is rooted in systems developed to meet military and intelligence needs during WWII – but the Cold War provided plenty of impetus for further military reliance on increasingly complex computing systems. And as fears of nuclear war took hold, computer systems (such as SAGE) were developed to surveil the nation and provide military officials with a steady flow of information. Along with the advancements in computing came the dispersion of cybernetic thinking which treated humans as information processing machines, not unlike computers, and helped advance a worldview wherein, given enough data, computers could make sense of the world.

Pentagon Seeks Laser-Powered Bat Drones

On Wednesday, the the Defense Enterprise Science Initiative, or DESI, announced a competition for basic science grants to build “new paradigms for autonomous flight, with a focus on highly-maneuverable platforms and algorithms for flight control and decision making.”

Biomimetic, or nature-imitating, designs for crawling, slinking and even swimming robots go back decades.

But getting flying machines to mimic nature is a good deal more difficult and more complicated than teaching robots to swim and crawl, which is why even the military’s smallest drones have followed conventional aerodynamic designs.