Tag Archives: surveillance drones

How to Spy on Your Own Country for $1.25 per day

San Francisco-based Premise Data Corp. pays users, many of them in the developing world, to complete basic tasks for small payments. Typical assignments involve snapping photos, filling out surveys or doing other basic data collection or observational reporting such as counting ATMs or reporting on the price of consumer goods like food.

About half of the company’s clients are private businesses seeking commercial information, Premise says. That can involve assignments like gathering market information on the footprint of competitors, scouting locations and other basic, public observational tasks. Premise in recent years has also started working with the U.S. military and foreign governments, marketing the capability of its flexible, global, gig-based workforce to do basic reconnaissance and gauge public opinion.

Premise is one of a growing number of companies that straddle the divide between consumer services and government surveillance and rely on the proliferation of mobile phones as a way to turn billions of devices into sensors that gather open-source information useful to government security services around the world.

Premise launched in 2013,, As of 2019, the company’s marketing materials said it has 600,000 contributors operating in 43 countries, including global hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. According to federal spending records, Premise has received at least $5 million since 2017 on military projects—including from contracts with the Air Force and the Army and as a subcontractor to other defense entities. In one pitch on its technology, prepared in 2019 for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, Premise proposed three potential uses that could be carried out in a way that is “responsive to commander’s information requirements”: gauge the effectiveness of U.S. information operations; scout and map out key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes; and covertly monitor cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square-kilometer area. The presentation said tasks needed to be designed to “safeguard true intent”—meaning contributors wouldn’t necessarily be aware they were participating in a government operation…

 Another Premise document says the company can design “proxy activities” such as counting bus stops, electricity lines or ATMs to provide incentives for contributors to move around as background data is gathered. Data from Wi-Fi networks, cell towers and mobile devices can be valuable to the military for situational awareness, target tracking and other intelligence purposes. There is also tracking potential in having a distributed network of phones acting as sensors, and knowing the signal strength of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points can be useful when trying to jam communications during military operations. Nearby wireless-network names can also help identify where a device is, even if the GPS is off, communications experts say.

Mr. Blackman said gathering open-source data of that nature doesn’t constitute intelligence work. “Such data is available to anyone who has a cellphone,” he said. “It is not unique or secret.” Premise submitted a document last July to the British government describing its capabilities, saying it can capture more than 100 types of metadata from its contributors’ phones and provide them to paying customers—including the phone’s location, type, battery level and installed apps. 

Users of the Premise app aren’t told which entity has contracted with the company for the information they are tasked with gathering. The company’s privacy policy discloses that some clients may be governments and that it may collect certain types of data from the phone, according to a spokesman…Currently the app assigns about five tasks a day to its users in Afghanistan, according to interviews with users there, including taking photos of ATMs, money-exchange shops, supermarkets and hospitals. One user in Afghanistan said he and others there are typically paid 20 Afghani per task, or about 25 cents—income for phone and internet services. A few months ago, some of the tasks on the site struck him as potentially concerning. He said the app posted several tasks of identifying and photographing Shiite mosques in a part of western Kabul populated largely by members of the ethnic Hazara Shiite minority. The neighborhood was attacked several times by Islamic State over the past five years…. Because of the nature and location of the tasks in a hot spot for terrorism, the user said he thought those tasks could involve spying and didn’t take them on.

Excerpt from Byron Tau, App Users Unwittingly Collect Intelligence, WSJ,  June 25, 2010

Smart Weapons Who Make Many Mistakes: AI in War

Autonomous weapon systems rely on artificial intelligence (AI), which in turn relies on data collected from those systems’ surroundings. When these data are good—plentiful, reliable and similar to the data on which the system’s algorithm was trained—AI can excel. But in many circumstances data are incomplete, ambiguous or overwhelming. Consider the difference between radiology, in which algorithms outperform human beings in analysing x-ray images, and self-driving cars, which still struggle to make sense of a cacophonous stream of disparate inputs from the outside world. On the battlefield, that problem is multiplied.

“Conflict environments are harsh, dynamic and adversarial,” says UNDIR. Dust, smoke and vibration can obscure or damage the cameras, radars and other sensors that capture data in the first place. Even a speck of dust on a sensor might, in a particular light, mislead an algorithm into classifying a civilian object as a military one, says Arthur Holland Michel, the report’s author. Moreover, enemies constantly attempt to fool those sensors through camouflage, concealment and trickery. Pedestrians have no reason to bamboozle self-driving cars, whereas soldiers work hard to blend into foliage. And a mixture of civilian and military objects—evident on the ground in Gaza in recent weeks—could produce a flood of confusing data.

The biggest problem is that algorithms trained on limited data samples would encounter a much wider range of inputs in a war zone. In the same way that recognition software trained largely on white faces struggles to recognise black ones, an autonomous weapon fed with examples of Russian military uniforms will be less reliable against Chinese ones. 

Despite these limitations, the technology is already trickling onto the battlefield. In its war with Armenia last year, Azerbaijan unleashed Israeli-made loitering munitions theoretically capable of choosing their own targets. Ziyan, a Chinese company, boasts that its Blowfish a3, a gun-toting helicopter drone, “autonomously performs…complex combat missions” including “targeted precision strikes”. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that many of today’s remote-controlled weapons could be turned into autonomous ones with little more than a software upgrade or a change of doctrine….

On May 12th, 2021, the ICRD published a new and nuanced position on the matter, recommending new rules to regulate autonomous weapons, including a prohibition on those that are “unpredictable”, and also a blanket ban on any such weapon that has human beings as its targets. These things will be debated in December 2021 at the five-yearly review conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, originally established in 1980 to ban landmines and other “inhumane” arms. Government experts will meet thrice over the summer and autumn, under un auspices, to lay the groundwork. 

Yet powerful states remain wary of ceding an advantage to rivals. In March, 2021 a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence established by America’s Congress predicted that autonomous weapons would eventually be “capable of levels of performance, speed and discrimination that exceed human capabilities”. A worldwide prohibition on their development and use would be “neither feasible nor currently in the interests of the United States,” it concluded—in part, it argued, because Russia and China would probably cheat. 

Excerpt from Autonomous weapons: The fog of war may confound weapons that think for themselves, Economist, May 29, 2021

A Perpetual State of Competition: US-China-Russia

The US Secretary of Defense stated in September 2020 that America’s air, space and cyber warriors “will be at the forefront of tomorrow’s high-end fight.” That means confronting near-peer competitors China and Russia. That means shifting the focus from defeating violent extremist groups to deterring great power competitors. It means fighting a high-intensity battle that combines all domains of warfare. “In this era of great power competition, we cannot take for granted the United States’ long-held advantages,” Esper said. 

The last time an enemy force dropped a bomb on American troops was in the Korean War. “China and Russia, seek to erode our longstanding dominance in air power through long-range fires, anti-access/area-denial systems and other asymmetric capabilities designed to counter our strengths,” he said. “Meanwhile, in space, Moscow and Beijing have turned a once peaceful arena into a warfighting domain.” China and Russia have placed weapons on satellites and are developing directed energy weapons to exploit U.S. systems “and chip away at our military advantage,” he said.

Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and some violent extremist groups also look to exploit cyberspace to undermine U.S. security without confronting American conventional overmatch. “They do this all in an increasingly ‘gray zone’ of engagement that keeps us in a perpetual state of competition,’ the secretary said…The fiscal 2020 Defense Department research and development budget is the largest in history, he said, and it concentrates on critical technologies such as hypersonic weapons, directed energy and autonomous systems. 

“In the Air Force, specifically, we are modernizing our force for the 21st century with aircraft such as the B-21, the X-37 and the Next Generation Air Dominance platform,” Esper said. “Equally important, we are transforming the way we fight through the implementation of novel concepts such as Dynamic Force Employment, which provides scalable options to employ the joint force while preserving our capabilities for major combat.”

To realize the full potential of new concepts the department must be able to exchange and synchronize information across systems, services and platforms, seamlessly across all domains, he said. “The Department of the Air Force is leading on this front with the advancement of Joint All-Domain Command and Control,” Esper said.  This concept is part of the development of a Joint Warfighting concept that will drive transition to all-domain operations, he said. “

For these breakthroughs to succeed in any future conflict … we must maintain superiority in the ultimate high ground — space,” Esper said…In collaboration with academia and industry, the Air Force’s AI Accelerator program is able to rapidly prototype cutting-edge innovation,” Esper said. One example of this was the AI technology used to speed-up the development of  F-15EX.


F-15EX

Excerpts from Esper: Air Force, Space Force Leading Charge to New Technologies, DOD News, Sept. 16, 2020

Dodging the Camera: How to Beat the Surveillance State in its Own Game

Powered by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), face-recognition systems are spreading like knotweed. Facebook, a social network, uses the technology to label people in uploaded photographs. Modern smartphones can be unlocked with it… America’s Department of Homeland Security reckons face recognition will scrutinise 97% of outbound airline passengers by 2023. Networks of face-recognition cameras are part of the police state China has built in Xinjiang, in the country’s far west. And a number of British police forces have tested the technology as a tool of mass surveillance in trials designed to spot criminals on the street.  A backlash, though, is brewing.

Refuseniks can also take matters into their own hands by trying to hide their faces from the cameras or, as has happened recently during protests in Hong Kong, by pointing hand-held lasers at cctv cameras. to dazzle them. Meanwhile, a small but growing group of privacy campaigners and academics are looking at ways to subvert the underlying technology directly…

Laser Pointers Used to Blind CCTV cameras during the Hong Kong Protests 2019

In 2010… an American researcher and artist named Adam Harvey created “cv [computer vision] Dazzle”, a style of make-up designed to fool face recognisers. It uses bright colours, high contrast, graded shading and asymmetric stylings to confound an algorithm’s assumptions about what a face looks like. To a human being, the result is still clearly a face. But a computer—or, at least, the specific algorithm Mr Harvey was aiming at—is baffled….

Modern Make-Up to Hide from CCTV cameras

HyperFace is a newer project of Mr Harvey’s. Where cv Dazzle aims to alter faces, HyperFace aims to hide them among dozens of fakes. It uses blocky, semi-abstract and comparatively innocent-looking patterns that are designed to appeal as strongly as possible to face classifiers. The idea is to disguise the real thing among a sea of false positives. Clothes with the pattern, which features lines and sets of dark spots vaguely reminiscent of mouths and pairs of eyes are available…

Hyperface Clothing for Camouflage

 Even in China, says Mr Harvey, only a fraction of cctv cameras collect pictures sharp enough for face recognition to work. Low-tech approaches can help, too. “Even small things like wearing turtlenecks, wearing sunglasses, looking at your phone [and therefore not at the cameras]—together these have some protective effect”. 

Excerpts from As face-recognition technology spreads, so do ideas for subverting it: Fooling Big Brother,  Economist, Aug. 17, 2019

How to Navigate the Rubble: DARPA

Imagine a natural disaster scenario, such as an earthquake, that inflicts widespread damage to buildings and structures, critical utilities and infrastructure, and threatens human safety. Having the ability to navigate the rubble and enter highly unstable areas could prove invaluable to saving lives or detecting additional hazards among the wreckage.

Dr. Ronald Polcawich, a DARPA program manager in the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO):”There are a number of environments that are inaccessible for larger robotic platforms. Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aide, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology.”

Technological advances in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), additive manufacturing, piezoelectric actuators, and low-power sensors have allowed researchers to expand into the realm of micro-to-milli robotics. However, due to the technical obstacles experienced as the technology shrinks, these platforms lack the power, navigation, and control to accomplish complex tasks proficiently

To help overcome the challenges of creating extremely [Size, Weight and Power] SWaP-constrained microrobotics, DARPA is launching a new program called SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP). The goal of SHRIMP is to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios. To achieve this mission, SHRIMP will explore fundamental research in actuator materials and mechanisms as well as power storage components, both of which are necessary to create the strength, dexterity, and independence of functional microrobotics platforms.

“The strength-to-weight ratio of an actuator influences both the load-bearing capability and endurance of a micro-robotic platform, while the maximum work density characterizes the capability of an actuator mechanism to perform high intensity tasks or operate over a desired duration,” said Polcawich. “

Excerpts from Developing Microrobotics for Disaster Recovery and High-Risk Environments: SHRIMP program seeks to advance the state-of-the art in micro-to-milli robotics platforms and underlying technology, OUTREACH@DARPA.MIL, July 17, 2018

The 1 Million Genies out of the Bottle

The head of the U.S. Departement of Homeland Security  (DHS)  on May 15, 2018 told Congress that the agency needs new legal authority to track threatening drones and disable or destroy them if necessary.  “Our enemies are exploring other technologies, too, such as drones, to put our country in danger. ISIS has used armed drones to strike targets in Syria, and we are increasingly concerned that they will try the same tactic on our soil,” she said…

Government and private-sector officials are concerned that dangerous or even hostile drones could get too close to places like military bases, airports and sports stadiums.Nielsen added that DHS has “also seen drones used to smuggle drugs across our borders and to conduct surveillance on sensitive government locations.”

In 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration barred drone flights over major U.S. nuclear sites. The FAA also banned drone flights over 10 U.S. landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty in New York and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  Also banned in 2017 were drone flights over 133 U.S. military facilities. The Pentagon said in August 2017 that U.S. military bases could shoot down drones that pose a threat.  The FAA said in January 2017  that more than 1 million drones have been registered. Last week, the U.S. Transportation Department picked 10 pilot projects allowing drone use at night, out of sight operations and over populated areas

Exceprts from U.S. agency seeks new authority to disable threatening drones, May 15, 2018

Drones and the Anti-Poaching War: Tanzania

The Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) says it is looking to deploy the French-made Delair Tech DT-18 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to carry out surveillance operations over key national reserves to protect critically endangered elephant and rhinos from poachers.

This follows successful test-flights of the DT-18 UAV over the Tarangire National Park last week by private Tanzanian company Bathawk Recon…Bathawk Recon is a private company which was set up to develop and deploy UAV surveillance systems for national parks and game reserves.  Its representative Mike Chambers said the UAV had performed to their satisfaction in both day and night surveillance operations. He said the DT 18 can fly multiple day and night missions thanks to an infrared camera….

TheDT-18 trials were conducted under the auspices of the (Tanzanian) Private Sector Anti Poaching Initiative which seeks to bring the private sector to participate in war against poaching.The UAV systems will be operated by the Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) of the national parks authority. Tanzania is battling a serious rhino and elephant poaching crisis and the populations of both species have continued to decline in the last few years. The most affected are Selous Game Reserve, Tarangire National Park and Ruaha Game Reserve.  Some 30 elephants are killed every day in Tanzania by poachers.

Excerpts from Oscar Nkala, Tanzania seeking to deploy DT-18 UAVs in anti-poaching war, DefenceWeb.com, Nov. 12, 2104

Controlling Protesters – the Skunk Drone

South African company Desert Wolf yesterday unveiled its Skunk riot control drone at the IFSEC security exhibition outside Johannesburg. Armed with four paintball guns, it can fire a variety of ammunition to subdue unruly crowds.The Skunk is designed to control crowds without endangering the lives of security staff. Bright strobe lights and on-board speakers enable operators to communicate with and warn the crowd. If things get out of control the Skunk can use its four paintball guns to disperse or mark people in the crowd. Four ammunition hoppers can load different types of ammunition such as dye marker balls, pepper spray balls or solid plastic balls. Payload capacity of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is 40 kg but since the gun assembly weighs around 15 kg the aircraft has an excess of power.

In addition to two high definition day cameras, the Skunk carries a FLIR thermal camera for night vision capability. A camera and microphone on the operator’s station records the operators (a pilot and payload operator) so their behaviour can be monitored. Hennie Kieser, Director of Desert Wolf, said people tend to be less aggressive when they are monitored.

Desert Wolf will soon deliver the first 25 units to customers in the mining industry and the UAV will enter service around June/July. Kieser said it was sad that the mines are in a predicament with strike related violence and this is why the mines are the biggest market for the system. A full system including cameras, ground control station etc. will cost around R500 000.

Kieser said Desert Wold will definitely export the Skunk into Africa, primarily for mining operations, and that South African success will lead to other orders. He felt the best market is not in South Africa because of the current legislation restricting drone use.

Desert Wolf Unveils Riot Control UAS, UAS Vision, May 16, 2014