How the NSA Is Using Cell Phone Data to Drone Civilians (In Pakistan)

In late 2001, an NSA analyst was asked to locate a target's cell phone in real-time. That began the NSA's role in the CIA's drone operations that, a new report suggests, had killed nearly 200 civilians by 2009.

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In late 2001, a National Security Agency analyst was asked to do something unusual. Instead of locating a target's cell phone to eavesdrop on his conversation, the analyst was asked for the phone's location in real-time. It was apparently the beginning of the NSA's role in the CIA's drone operations that, a new report compiled by Pakistan suggests, had killed nearly 200 civilians by 2009.

The details of that first NSA-supported strike appear in a new story from The Washington Post. A Navy SEAL, standing in a trailer that was once home to the CIA's child care program, asked the analyst where the NSA's target was located.

“We just want you to find the phone!” the SEAL urged. No one cared about the conversation it might be transmitting. …

The NSA collector in Georgia took what was then considered a gigantic leap — from using the nation’s most sophisticated spy technology to record the words of presidents, kings and dictators to using it to kill a single man in a terrorist group.

This, The Post suggests, spurred the NSA's rapid expansion in the last decade, building and expanding its facilities around the world. Meanwhile, the technology used by the agency to track targets also expanded. The Post:

By September 2004, a new NSA technique enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off. JSOC troops called this “The Find,” and it gave them thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq, according to members of the unit.

At the same time, the NSA developed a new computer linkup called the Real Time Regional Gateway into which the military and intelligence officers could feed every bit of data or seized documents and get back a phone number or list of potential targets. It also allowed commanders to see, on a screen, every type of surveillance available in a given territory.

This appears to be a different tool than Boundless Informant, the graphical interface of the NSA's PRISM data collection revealed in the leaks from Edward Snowden. But that 2004 innovation may explain Snowden's insistence that visitors stash their cell phones in his fridge when visiting.

The side effects of the NSA-fueled drone strikes has been a point of dispute since the program began. The United States government has been vague about its estimates of civilian casualties from the strikes. During the president's first speech acknowledging the program, he stated that "it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war" — without putting a number on it. Documents released in April of this year included language from the CIA stating that civilian deaths were "exceedingly rare."

A report just leaked from the Pakistani government is a bit more specific. Acquired by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it offers that country's assessment of the civilian casualty risk.

Drawn from field reports by local officials in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the document lists over 70 drone strikes between 2006 and late 2009, alongside a small number of other incidents such as alleged Nato attacks and strikes by unspecified forces.

Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes, at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated by the leaked report to be civilian victims. Some 94 of these are said to be children.

That figure is slightly lower than the comprehensive data compiled by the New America Foundation, which puts the total for that time period in the range of 190 — with scores more listed as "unidentified." Last fall, Columbia University's Human Rights Institute tried to assess the accuracy of reports on civilian and militant casualties, finding that "estimates are incomplete and may significantly undercount the extent of reported civilian deaths." The number released by Pakistan, it's worth noting, also include fewer strikes than reported by the New America Foundation.

Last week, representatives of the government's surveillance infrastructure testified before the House Judiciary Committee. Chris Inglis, deputy director of the NSA, was asked about a key concern of privacy advocates: if the agency's sweep of phone metadata included location data for those calls. (That data collection program was renewed on Friday.)

Inglis' response: "We are not collecting that data under this program." For at least one other program, they are — as of late 2001.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.