Syria and Iraq are clubhouses for DIY remote-controlled guns

Click on the photos for an alternative American TV version

The Syrian civil war is producing a multitude of remotely-operated, custom-made killing machines — sniper rifles and machine guns which a shooter can trigger remotely with the push of a button.

Remotely-operated guns are common in militaries around the world. The United States has thousands of them mounted on tanks and other armored vehicles. The U.S. Marine Corps is testing a smaller machine-gun robot called MAARS, and other gun-bots have appeared in South Korea, Israel and Russia.

But their adoption by rebel groups is an innovation arising from an intermingling of war, cheap personal computers and cameras. The devices typically use cables to hook up the guns to control stations. Aside from the gun, a complete setup only costs a few hundred bucks worth of off-the-shelf components and some technical skills.

After that, it’s just a matter of swiveling the now-teleoperated gun with a joystick, gamepad or a keyboard and triggering the firing mechanism…

While the weapons are hardly new to the Syrian battlefield, an August report published by the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office listed 20 distinct teleoperated weapons spotted in Iraq and Syria which can be traced to specific armed factions.

The consequences extend beyond the battlefield, as it’s usually only a matter of time before weapons of war filter back to the civilian world.

…It’s hard to see insurgents matching the scale by which states can deploy teleoperated guns. The weapons in Syria and Iraq are custom made, not mass produced. And armies have a lot more money to spend on research and development.

Still, that insurgents are nonetheless crafting their own versions is something the U.S. military should worry about as an emerging matter of fact in modern warfare.

I imagine there are stores retailing drones which can be adapted for geek death squads in just about every country in the world. Add that to the mix.

Photography and our Civil War

Click to enlargeGettysburg

❝ While photographs of earlier conflicts do exist, the American Civil War is considered the first major conflict to be extensively photographed. Not only did intrepid photographers venture onto the fields of battle, but those very images were then widely displayed and sold in ever larger quantities nationwide.

Photographers such as Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan found enthusiastic audiences for their images as America’s interests were piqued by the shockingly realistic medium. For the first time in history, citizens on the home front could view the actual carnage of far away battlefields. Civil War photographs stripped away much of the Victorian-era romance around warfare.

❝ Photography during the Civil War, especially for those who ventured out to the battlefields with their cameras, was a difficult and time consuming process. Photographers had to carry all of their heavy equipment, including their darkroom, by wagon. They also had to be prepared to process cumbersome light-sensitive images in cramped wagons.

Today pictures are taken and stored digitally, but in 1861, the newest technology was wet-plate photography, a process in which an image is captured on chemically coated pieces of plate glass. This was a complicated process done exclusively by photographic professionals…

❝ While photography of the 1860’s would seem primitive by the technological standards of today, many of the famous Civil War photographers of the day were producing sophisticated three-dimensional images or “stereo views.” These stereo view images proved to be extremely popular among Americans and a highly effective medium for displaying life-like images…

With these advancements in photographic technology, the Civil War became a true watershed moment in the history of photography. The iconic photos of the American Civil War would not only directly affect how the war was viewed from the home front, but it would also inspire future combat photographers who would take their cameras to the trenches of Flanders, the black sands of Iwo Jima, the steaming jungles of Vietnam, and the deserts of Afghanistan.

RTFA for techniques and technology. Photography brought a new dimension to recording history. hopefully, it continues to bring new dimensions into understanding politics and war.

Facebook censored the historic “Napalm girl” photo — why is anyone surprised?

Click to enlargeAP Photo/Nick Ut

❝ If you were to pick a handful of images that changed how people think about war, Nick Ut’s most famous photograph would surely be among them. The image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc running from napalm — her skin burning, her clothes burned away — defined the horrors of the Vietnam War.

❝ Norwegian author Tom Egeland had the lasting power of Ut’s work in mind when he shared the photo to Facebook weeks ago. But when Facebook’s moderators saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning image, they saw not its documentary significance or its impact on the world, but a violation of the site’s nudity policy.

Facebook’s moderators removed the photograph from Egeland’s page, along with its accompanying text. His account was suspended for 24 hours after he shared an interview with Phuc criticizing Facebook’s decision to censor this image, he said. But that was just the beginning of the incredible outrage at Facebook that has swept across Norway in recent days, becoming the subject of an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg from Norway’s largest newspaper, and rising all the way up to the country’s prime minister.

❝ After initially defending its decision to remove the photograph, Facebook decided to “reinstate” the image on Friday afternoon, according to a written statement from a Facebook spokeswoman. “We recognize the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time,” the statement reads. “Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal.”…

Corporate hogwash.

❝ While Zuckerberg recently said that Facebook is “a tech company, not a media company,” this incident highlights just how much control the platform can wield over what media its users do (and don’t) see.

Espen Egil Hansen, the editor of Aftenposten — Norway’s largest paper — called Zuckerberg the “world’s most powerful editor” in an open letter to Zuckerberg protesting Facebook’s censorship of the photo, which was published on Friday morning.

“I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly,” he wrote.

❝ The outrage in Norway escalated when Prime Minister Erna Solberg posted the image to her own Facebook page on Friday, after the publication of Aftenposten’s letter. “Facebook gets it wrong when they censor such pictures. It limits the freedom of speech,” she wrote in an accompanying statement that was translated by Reuters. “I say yes to healthy, open and free debate — online and wherever else we go. But I say no to this form of censorship.”

Solberg’s post, along with the statement, then disappeared. A spokesman for the prime minister’s office confirmed that she “did not remove it” herself from her own page — instead, Facebook deleted it.

❝ She later reposted the image — censoring Phuc’s entire body with a large black box — and called on Facebook to reconsider its policies. She paired the censored version of Ut’s work with several other censored versions of iconic photos, writing, “What Facebook does by removing images of this kind, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history.”

❝ Aftenposten ran its direct address letter to Zuckerberg on the front page of its paper. “I am writing this letter to inform you that I shall not comply with your requirement to remove a documentary photography from the Vietnam war made by Nick Ut. Not today, and not in the future,” Hansen, the paper’s editor, wrote.

“The media have a responsibility to consider publication in every single case. This may be a heavy responsibility. Each editor must weigh the pros and cons,” Hansen wrote. “This right and duty, which all editors in the world have, should not be undermined by algorithms encoded in your office in California.”

After more bullshit, Facebook finally relented.

RTFA and you’ll bump into all the rationales Facebook editors offered up to excuse and continue their censorship. Eventually, you can read their attempt to excuse their actions. It reads like a press release from any government, any corporate behemoth, trying to excuse a self-serving attempt to control access to history, to politics, to the freedom of individuals to decide what they wish to see and read.

That’s what it comes down to.

Don’t kid yourself about geeks being liberal or tech entrepreneurs automatically having the best interests of the world at heart. The breed has no corner on the market for kindness, care or concern – for either individual rights or the end of the world. Dollar$ govern the system. Don’t count on Harvard dropouts to be less likely to harbor bigotry and reactionary foolishness than any less-educated populist idjit.

Of course that includes the head of Facebook, the corporation. Ultimately, Mark Zuckerberg sets the standards of the company he started.

Pentagon research in artificial intelligence moves us closer to robot wars

Human-robot strike teams, autonomous land mines, and covert swarms of minuscule robotic spies: the US Department of Defense’s idea of the future of war seems like a sci-fi movie.

In a report that dreams of new ways to destroy adversaries and protect American assets in equal portions, the DOD’s science research division cements the idea that artificial intelligence and autonomous robotic systems will be a crucial part of the nation’s ongoing defense strategy.

US military already uses a host of robotic systems in the battlefield, from reconnaissance and attack drones to bomb disposal robots. However, these are all remotely-piloted systems, meaning a human has a high level of control over the machine’s actions at all times.

The new DOD report sees tactical advantages from humans and purely self-driven machines working together in the field. In one scenario, a swarm of autonomous drones would flock above a combat zone to jam enemy communications, provide real-time surveillance of the area, and autonomously fire against the enemy.

Might be satisfying to some to presume our robots are only killing their robots. Kind of like believing that hacker techniques are only used by the NSA, FBI, etc., to spy on other folks in other countries.

Wishful thinking.

John Hersey’s Hiroshima revealed the horror of the bomb

This book has never been out of print

At the end of this month 70 years will have passed since the publication of a magazine story hailed as one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written. Headlined simply Hiroshima, the 30,000-word article by John Hersey had a massive impact, revealing the full horror of nuclear weapons to the post-war generation, as Caroline Raphael describes.

❝ I have an original copy of the 31 August 1946 edition of The New Yorker. It has the most innocuous of covers – a delightful playful carefree drawing of summer in a park. On the back cover, the managers of the New York Giants and the New York Yankees encourage you to “Always Buy Chesterfield” cigarettes.

Past the Goings on About Town and movie listings, past the ritzy adverts for diamonds and fur and cars and cruises you find a simple statement from The Editors explaining that this edition will be devoted entirely to just one article “on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb”. They are taking this step, they say, “in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use”.

Seventy years ago no-one talked about stories “going viral”, but the publication of John Hersey’s article Hiroshima in The New Yorker achieved just that. It was talked of, commented on, read and listened to by many millions all over the world as they began to understand what really happened not just to the city but to the people of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and in the following days…

Hersey’s editors, Harold Ross and William Shawn, knew they had something quite extraordinary, unique, and the edition was prepared in utter secrecy. Never before had all the magazine’s editorial space been given over to a single story and it has never happened since. Journalists who were expecting to have their stories in that week’s edition wondered where their proofs had gone. Twelve hours before publication, copies were sent to all the major US newspapers – a smart move that resulted in editorials urging everyone to read the magazine…

All 300,000 copies immediately sold out and the article was reprinted in many other papers and magazines the world over, except where newsprint was rationed. When Albert Einstein attempted to buy 1,000 copies of the magazine to send to fellow scientists he had to contend with facsimiles. The US Book of the Month Club gave a free special edition to all its subscribers because, in the words of its president, “We find it hard to conceive of anything being written that could be of more important at this moment to the human race.”

By November, Hiroshima was published in book form. It was translated quickly into many languages and a braille edition was released. However, in Japan, Gen Douglas MacArthur – the supreme commander of occupying forces, who effectively governed Japan until 1948 – had strictly prohibited dissemination of any reports on the consequences of the bombings. Copies of the book, and the relevant edition of The New Yorker, were banned until 1949, when Hiroshima was finally translated into Japanese by the Rev Mr Tanimoto, one of Hersey’s six survivors.

Please read the book. It is one of the three books reflecting the War that formed much of my life. Certainly my feelings about the cruelty of war. My family still has the free copy we received from the Book-of-the-month club.

Sorry. I can write no more this morning. Too many tears.

New Army manual warns soldiers about store-bought drones

With easy access via online storefronts and similar sources, terrorists and rebels and even government forces from Iraq and Syria to Ukraine’s breakaway Donbass region have been increasingly using small drones. With little training, insurgents can use these tiny flying machines to spy on their opponents, direct artillery strikes or even possible attack targets directly.

Now, the U.S. Army is warning troops to be on the lookout for these specific threats in a new manual.

In July, the ground combat branch released a new publication called Techniques for Combined Arms for Air Defense. The handbook includes sections specifically dealing with drones…

…Two types of pilotless aircraft are “the greatest challenges for Army forces,” the manual declares. “The smaller platform … provides the user with the ability to meet reconnaissance, surveillance and information collection requirements without being noticed.”

The Pentagon describes the first category as remote control aircraft generally weighing fewer than 20 pounds that routinely fly below 1,200 feet. The next level up are craft up to 55 pounds that can travel up to 3,500 feet in the air. Troops shouldn’t expect drones in either group to fly faster than 300 miles per hour…

The category covers an ever increasing number of commercial types already available to hobbyists and private citizens. The most common variants are miniature helicopters with four, six or even eight separate rotors, which can cost anywhere between around $100 and $500 depending on the particular configuration.

These are obviously the kind of drones the Army was thinking about when it drafted the manual. The graphics inserted into the text clearly show a commercial quadcopter design.

The manual says these drones present four basic types of threats, from spying to indirect and direct attacks to swarming friendly troops. The possibility of enemy fighters snooping on American positions is a very real concern…

On top of traditional surveillance, the Army air defense manual points out that enemy fighters could use the drones to watch troops approach a roadside bomb or other hazard. With the remote controlled camera overhead, they could set off these improvised explosives at the best possible moment without having to be nearby…The Army is worried that militants could turn these amateur flying spooks into remote controlled bombs, too.

Sooner or later a $500 drone is going to take down a $500 million military aircraft. Ain’t economic democracy something to behold?

White House staff plays key role in deadly drone strikes — and faces no Congressional oversight

Click to enlargeNorthrop Grumman

The White House staff for national security, exempt from review by Congress, plays a substantial role in the process for killing suspected terrorists, according to a newly released document on drone strikes.

The 2013 document, known informally as the “playbook” for Barack Obama’s signature counterterrorism operations, was released on Saturday by the justice department as the result of court requests by the American Civil Liberties Union. The playbook provides the closest look to date at the bureaucratic machinery of global killing that Obama will pass on to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

The document designates the National Security Council staff as a body of review over “all operational plans” for either killing or capturing terrorist subjects. Once representatives of various cabinet agencies and departments meet to discuss a specific plan, NSC attorneys provide legal input.

…While the NSC staff plays a role in nominating people for inclusion on the so-called “kill list”, it neither makes the nomination nor involves itself in carrying out a strike or raid.

Such plans include the length of time permissible for killing or capturing people in a designated place, the “strike and surveillance” assets to be used, the specific counter-terrorism objectives to be achieved, and a “near certainty” that civilians will neither be killed nor, for non-lethal action, injured while capturing a target. The NSC staff convenes meetings across agencies for nominating any named “high-value target” to the “kill list”, and passes on those considered validly marked for death to a meeting of cabinet deputies. It also receives written assessments of the results of each strike…

The US justice department released a public version of the three-year-old document…after the ACLU persuaded a federal judge in February to decide against the Obama administration’s argument for total secrecy…

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU attorney who spearheaded the lawsuit for the playbook’s disclosure, noted the power of the NSC…“The Obama administration notably has taken the position that the NSC is not an agency and is therefore beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.”

The NSC now has about 400 employees. None are approved by the Senate. They do not testify before Congress. Their records are automagically presumed to be privileged.