Crowd Sourcing Intelligence in Iraq

February 3, 2009

The rise of the internet and cell-phones in protest organizing has been well documented in the past few years. From the 2005 Paris riots to the most recent unrest in Greece, it seems that no self-respecting group of rioters or political demonstrators can go without the usage of some sort of electronically networked communication. It is also clear that the use of social and cellular networks in protesting is more than just a passing fad; these technologies have given organizers a greatly enhanced ability to run more flexible and effective protests.

I would like to point out another way that networking is functioning to help organizers “crowd-source” and network with protestors. In this case organizers happen to be US Army commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan and the protesters are their local informants.  In 2005 the Army set up a tip-line for Iraqis to either call or text intelligence on insurgent activities and whereabouts.  Since then, the tip line has yielded thousands of messages and calls (it has turned into a more SMS based service in recent years) which have greatly aided Army efforts to track down elusive Al-Queda agents in the chaos of Iraq.

This is a wonderful example of how cell-phone networks can be used to “democratize” the world of intelligence.  The anonymity and cheapness afforded by text messaging services greatly reduces the barrier of entry for those wishing to participate in the US intelligence network.  Instead of relying on its own spies, the army can source intelligence directly from those on the ground through cell phones rather than having e informants endanger themselves by physically travelling to meet with intelligence collectors. Now every Iraqi citizen can take a stake in stopping the sectarian violence. Importantly, with land-lines still few and far between, this kind of networking could not exist with cell-phone and text messaging technology.

Aside from their “crowd-sourcing capabilities” cellular networks are also serving to locate Taliban and Al-Queda operatives attempting to access their own insurgent network.  Many insurgents are forced to remove their cell phone batteries and limit their talk/messaging time to avoid detection by government and US forces. By simultaneously raising the barrier to entry for the militants and lowering it for their supporters the government has obviously succeeded in hampering Taliban operations; a cautionary tale for any opposition group that tries to rely too heavily on electronic networking.

The effort has been so successful that a recent Wired Magazine piece reports that,

“In Iraq, when the locals start calling in too many tips to government-friendly forces, the insurgents blow up the neighborhood cell tower, in an attempt to sever the relationship between the military and the people.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban are now threatening to pull a similar stunt.  They threatened Monday to take out “telecom towers across Afghanistan if mobile phone companies do not switch off their signals for 10 hours starting at dusk,” according to the AP.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujaheed said the U.S. and other foreign troops in the country are using mobile phone signals to track down the insurgents and launch attacks against them.

The Taliban have “decided to give a three-day deadline to all mobile phone companies to stop their signals from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. in order to stop the enemies from getting intelligence through mobile phones and to stop Taliban and civilian casualties,” Mujaheed told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.”

In the recent Iraqi elections the LA Times reported that, “cell phones were bombarded by campaign text messages.” This is encouraging news, perhaps SMS  in  Iraq is now ready to make the transition from fighting for democracy to helping to support its smooth running.

-Michael Stillman

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