Around 2006, a holy terror must have seized Iraqi insurgents. It must have seemed that, just as at Homer’s Troy, the gods were watching the battle from above and took sides. Seemingly without regard to whatever precautions they might take, insurgents were being slaughtered left and right — not only those directly confronting American troops or government forces, but even the financiers, couriers, bomb builders, and bomb placers. Death might find insurgents in their cars via Hellfire missile or in their homes in the middle of the night. Friends and compatriots were disappearing, snatched up in the desert or arrested at checkpoints. Precautions like using burner phones or in-person messengers no longer seemed to be working nearly as well. Terrorist and insurgent networks were collapsing, and the numbers of successful attacks against Americans were dropping. Why?
Eyes in the Sky tells the story of a top-secret surveillance system that helped turn the tide in Iraq. In his debut book, Arthur Holland Michel investigates Gorgon Stare, an aerial surveillance system that uses drones or airplanes carrying massive cameras to observe areas as large as a major city. Images from the cameras are in turn fed to computer programs that allow analysts to track suspects, and even to rewind to look back over their paths, like watching TiVo. Gorgon Stare was first developed to disrupt attacks in Iraq by IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which had become the main cause of death among U.S.-led coalition forces. But Michel, who is among the most insightful writers today on how the technologies behind America’s War on Terror are shaping us, shows how similar systems are now being used by intelligence agencies, police departments, and companies — with dramatic consequences.
Gorgon Stare and several other programs like it allowed American forces in Iraq to continuously surveil cities in their entirety, unblinkingly and without forgetting. After an IED attack, analysts could look back over the video to find the insurgents who had placed the bomb, and then further to find all of the places they had visited. Analysts could also cross-reference this data to other intelligence or surveillance, and build up lists of likely insurgent hideaways. Algorithms could trace individual cars or people over time, and even highlight suspicious driving activity for further investigation, like cars that did U-turns or followed other cars. Operators of the system could do this work in real time as well, coordinating with troops on the ground to pass on fresh intelligence or transmit the live images.
The tactical impact was tremendous, both on its own and as part of a new way of doing counterterrorism.
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