Intelligence: Death By Cellphone

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June 14, 2015: Cellphone cameras have become a major source of military intelligence and this is especially true with counter-terrorism operations. The United States recently revealed how a picture an Islamic terrorist took of himself with his cellphone (a selfie) revealed the location of an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) headquarters, which was promptly bombed. Such incidents are more common with poorly trained irregulars, but even well trained troops have problems with “cellphone discipline”. This problem is a 21 st century one and it has been getting worse.

Incorporating cameras into cell phones first showed up in 2000 and the practice quickly spread. This proved to be very popular and as such phones became cheaper, and their cameras more capable military intelligence agencies warned that troops were taking a lot of pictures, especially when in combat zones. This was leading to a lot of pictures that could reveal military secrets. Efforts to ban troops use of cellphones in combat zones or inside classified areas had some success, but that only reduced the flood of useful (so intelligence experts) cellphone photos it did not eliminate it. This became particularly the case as cellphone networks entered the 3rd generation (3G) about the same time cellphone cameras were introduced. This enabled cellphone users to take photos and immediately send them to someone else, or post them to a website. By 2010 social networks were growing in popularity and cellphone users competed to take and post photos of all sorts of things, often getting newsworthy photos into circulation well before the traditional media. Cellphones with 3G capabilities became so cheap that even many Islamic terrorists and most military personnel had them.

And so it came to pass that a U.S. Air Force general revealed on June 1, 2015 that one of his intelligence analysts, one of many assigned to monitoring the Internet for useful photos, found a picture taken by an ISIL member outside an ISIL headquarters that the air force did not have an exact location on. With that picture the air force was able to precisely locate the ISIL headquarters and 22 hours after the photo was noted an aircraft destroyed the building with three GPS guided (JDAM) bombs. The air force did not mention details of how the photo revealed the exact location but it was probably via analysis of the photo metadata (which these days often includes time and location) and/or automated analysis of geographic features shown in the photo as well as the shape and arrangement of the buildings.

Such errors by terrorists is no secret. Poor “cellphone discipline” is still common even though ISIL leaders know of this vulnerability among many of their followers who are often untrained and undisciplined. A growing number of these young men also own cellphones with cameras and Internet access.

ISIL training documents have been captured detailing how members are supposed to deal with the problem. ISIL recruits are told (in theory) that they should use special software to encrypt SMS messages and calls, turn off geolocation and clean metadata for photos taken, never distribute photos showing ISIL personnel or facilities without permission and, most importantly, do include in you online profile that you intend to kill non-Moslems. Many ignore this advice.

As we can clearly see this particular terrorist violated at least two of these rules. Of course we would like more of these ISIL mistakes in the future and all that was unusual about this incident was that it got official confirmation. Islamic terrorists leaders and Internet experts know this is not a new problem and sometimes works in their favor. For example in 2007 the Iraqi Islamic terrorists (some of whom are running ISIL) used the geolocation data from a posted photo for a mortar attack on an American base that led to the destruction of four AH-64 Apache helicopters. They used photographs taken by a soldier, which gave them exact coordinates of where to hit. Currently the same method is used by both sides in the war on eastern Ukraine. --- Przemys&&22;aw Juraszek

 

 


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