Hello & Welcome

Welcome to my Blog! Thanks for stopping by. I'll be posting from time to time my adventures in writing and my trials and tribulations in the publishing world, along with anything relevant in regards to current events, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Intelligence community that appears in the press. Please note that anything I post is not reflective or representative of any official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force; only my views and opinions as a private citizen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Stingray & the 4th Amendment

There is a very interesting article today in the WSJ on the Stingray and the implications of its use against U.S. citizens.

The Stingray is basically a small suite of equipment and antennas that are used to create a vehicle borne mobile cell phone tower.  FBI agents or other law enforcement personnel can utilize the Stingray to track a cell phone that is powered on, whether the phone is in use (making a call or sending a text) or not.

Here's the short version of how without all the geek-speak.   First of all, you need to remember that your cell phone is a radio (actually as many as six different radios, but that gets too geeky to explain).   In order for the cell phone you have in your pocket, purse, or hanging on your belt to work properly, it needs to know which cell tower is closest to it.  Knowing that, the phone can communicate, via the built in radio, with the tower giving it the strongest signal.  As you walk or drive, the phone switches from the tower you were using that is now getting farther away, to the next closest tower as the signal from it gets stronger.  When the phone talks to the tower, it uses its unique (in the whole world) electronic identity to identify itself to the tower (actually, to the telephone network the tower connects your phone to).  The tower (and the telephone network behind it) knows how many phones it can reach, and 'talk' to, to allow you to make calls, send text messages, surf the web, etc.

This is where the Stingray comes in.  If a law enforcement agency can determine the electronic identifier your phone has assigned to it, they can go to a judge, apply for a search warrant, and then use the Stingray to find, and if needs be, track you.

They (law enforcement) load your phone's unique electronic identifier into the Stingray, then drive around in the vicinity of where they suspect you are, waiting for your phone to 'talk' to the Stingray.  Why would your phone talk to the Stingray instead of the cell tower nearby?  Because the Stingray broadcasts the same beacon a cell tower does, but because it's closer to your phone than the tower is, the signal appears stronger to the phone, and the phone is designed and programmed to lock on to the strongest signal.  After your phone is 'hooked' by the Stingray, then it's just a matter of old fashioned direction finding to track you and your phone.

(For those of you more technically inclined, yes I omitted a large amount of technical and procedural detail on purpose.)

I think the technology is very impressive and presents a number of advantages for law enforcement and other applications.  Having said that, it does create a 4th Amendment search and seizure issue for the courts, which will undoubtedly take time to resolve and yet again proves that the creation and interpretation of technology law lags behind the speed of technology.

It's illegal to wiretap someone's conversations without a court order.  Is it illegal to use what could be argued as the 'publicly available functions' of your phone to track you, particularly once you are outside your home, walking around in public?   Do you have a right to privacy if your phone is powered on, no matter where it (and you) are?

This technology, much like the similar controversy over law enforcement attaching GPS devices to suspect's vehicles to track their movements, will be a debate within the legal system worth watching.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why Classified Information Needs to Stay Secret

It seems that every couple of months or so, some professional news outlet, or the on-line site WikiLeaks, releases or reports what is described as classified material. Once an organization or entity reports it, other professional journalists tend to jump on the story quickly, hitting up their sources and reporting on the story in whatever unique way or angle they believe they can.

Today’s case in point is the Washington Post’s initial reporting (based initially on a WikiLeaks release of classified State Department cables between the U.S. and the host governments), on the locations of the bases used to purportedly launch and recover unmanned drones like the MQ-9 REAPER. These drones are used, in part, to carry the U.S. war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates directly to the leaders in those organizations. REAPER drones have launched missiles and bombs directly at identified Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda affiliate leaders to kill them with pinpoint strikes, giving the U.S. an unmatched capability to strike and limit collateral damage, while reducing risk to U.S. forces.

The Post reporting picked up and expanded upon by Fox News today, is obviously something that would be judged a ‘newsworthy’ item by an editor. There is just one problem. The revelation of even the general location of these bases has placed the lives of American military personnel in extreme danger.

Did the Washington Post or Fox News provide specific geographic coordinates for these bases? No. Did the classified cables posted on the WikiLeaks site? I’m not going to look and find out (I have no interest in making WikiLeaks think they are providing a useful service.) It doesn’t matter if they did or not. Anyone with any reasonable amount of deductive reasoning and an Internet connection can look at the publicly available information on the MQ-9’s performance characteristics, check Google Earth for the overhead imagery of the airfields capable of allowing a REAPER to land in country X, and then send people to stay in nearby towns for a day or two and wait to see a REAPER takes off from, or lands at the airfield nearby to confirm the presence of the drones. And Al-Qaeda has more than proven itself to have people capable of deductive reasoning and Internet access and usage.

What comes next is obvious. Al-Qaeda conducts a little more reconnaissance of the security at the airfield, some planning, obtains some weapons and explosives, and conducts a little more planning. Suddenly there is an attack on the airfield, killing the American military members who act as the REAPER’s ground crew and maintenance team, and damaging or destroying one or more of the drones at the base. Al-Qaeda gains a propaganda windfall within the Arab world and the Jihadist community, while a few more American soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines are shipped home in coffins to grieving family members.

So where is the problem? The problem is the person or persons who leaked the State Department cables to WikiLeaks that kicked off the journalistic process of 'they reported the news worthy item, why don’t we?' inside the editorial offices and journalist’s minds.

The U.S. news outlets can't be faulted for anything other than what I view as being in 'rush to publish' mode and what I view as less than ideal judgement. The Constitution of the United States explicitly allows the freedom of the press, but I will argue that in my personal opinion, the editors at the Post and Fox News should have recognized the potential danger and elected not do a story on the leaked cables. However, they are journalists first, and I’m sure they did not see (or likely consider) the potential repercussions beyond the immediate gratification of trumpeting this previously unknown facet of U.S. drone operations before more of their colleagues did, and the perceived 'luster' of the story faded.

What can be done is that the people who leaked the cables need to be identified by the appropriate law enforcement agencies, investigated, and prosecuted within the fullest extent of all applicable laws. They have compromised the security of the United States and its allies in a time of war, imperiled U.S. confidential diplomatic discourse with other nations, and potentially endangered the lives of U.S. and Allied military personnel. If any U.S. or Allied service member or person is harmed or killed by the leak of this information, the individuals who leaked the cables should also be charged as accomplices to assault or murder.