Is killing a drone operator a legitimate act of war?

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2010

Here’s a tricky modern conundrum for you, via Cheryl Morgan. Over at Crooked Timber, people are discussing a recent BBC radio program about the increasing use of remote-controlled drones and UAVs by Western military forces, specifically in theatres of the “War on Terror”; I’ve not had the chance to sit down and listen to the re-run of the program, but the post at CT raises the titular question:

Some of the people controlling drones are in the military. Some of them are civilian contractors, perhaps based in a different country to the army they’re fighting for (such as British commercial operators based in Surrey, flying surveillance drones for the Dutch in Afghanistan.) The programme raised the issue of whether software engineers might one day be tried for war crimes. Looking at things the other way, if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

Leaving aside the fact that I’ve always found the notion of “legal warfare” to be more than a little ludicrous (as surely the laws of war are set by whoever won the last one, designed to maintain the geopolitical status quo, and hence inherently partisan), it’s an interesting question. The line between combatant and non-combatant has become increasingly blurred over the course of the last century, and the remote operations afforded by drone technology (not to mention guided missiles, and arguably any technology superior in accurate range to that of the opposition) are firmly planted in a sort of moral no-man’s-land. Is there a quantifiable difference between pulling a trigger to kill a man who you can see through your rifle sight, and pressing a button that kills a man who you can see on your computer monitor, thousands of miles away in a country you’ve never even been to?

It seems perfectly clear to me that there’s no moral difference whatsoever: to kill is to kill, no matter how it is accomplished or mediated. So the final question stands – is the drone operator a legitimate military target for the faction or nation he is deployed against? If not, why not? And where does that legitimacy spring from? Is it a genuine ethical construct, or is it a sort of retrospective justification after the fact? “Kill ’em all – let God the lawyers sort ’em out.”


Citizen status for dolphins?

Paul Raven @ 07-01-2010

Well, maybe not… but researchers who work with dolphins have long proclaimed their high level of intelligence, suggesting that they’re the second smartest critter on Earth (after ourselves, natch). Now some are saying that they should be granted a suite of basic rights as befits “non-human persons”. [via @fabiofernandes; image by Just Taken Pics]

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve been paying attention – a little over a year ago we mentioned the Great Ape Project, a pressure group pushing for human rights for our primate cousins, and there was a court case in Austria a while back in which campaigners attempted to get a court to rule that a chimpanzee called Hiasl should have parity of rights with human beings.

Given the number of other more pressing issues on our collective plate at the moment, I can’t see human-level rights for higher animals becoming a hot-button issue any time soon. But the activities of the more radical (and, for my money, seriously misguided and hypocritical) animal rights groups have begun to nudge into the realms of terrorism; as the centralised political power of nation-states continues to fragment under the pressure of networked special-interest groups, we can probably expect to see more drastic demonstrations of discontent from those who would see some other species join humanity at the top of the ladder. Enumerating the deep ironies implicit in that (and in all other types of terrorism, state-sanctioned or otherwise) is left as an exercise for the reader.


The new terrorism: domestic, economic, environmentalist?

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2009

burnt-out carVia Chairman Bruce comes news from Berlin, a city whose rapid rate of change and gentrification is escalating tensions between the far right and radical left… and those of no political affiliation at all. The last six months have seen a wave of car-burning:

During the past six months, more than 170 cars have been destroyed by fire in Berlin and police confirm conservatively that 93 were politically motivated attacks.

A mysterious, single page website, brennende-autos.de (Burning Cars of Berlin), shows the number of cars set alight and where the crimes occurred, revealing clusters in ‘‘richer’’ areas, or in suburbs where gentrification and redevelopment are changing the demographic of local neighbourhoods.

Mysterious indeed. Is the site run by the car-burners themselves? Their supporters? Their ideological opponents? Berlin being a traditionally bohemian city, it may just be someone’s idea of an art installation.

According to a spokeswoman for the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz (the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution), there has been a measurable increase in left-wing extremist action, including the targeting of police and the property of businesses perceived to be involved in military or ‘‘imperialist’’ activities.

DHL, a company involved in logistics for the German armed forces, has been a recent target.

‘‘It is not just anti-militarism we are seeing … it is anti-imperialism, a catalogue of anti-things … anti-fascism, anti-gentrification. The people we are seeing are the so-called ‘autonoma’, people operating in groups without hierarchy, who are not well organised and so classical anarchy is in the background of their thinking,’’ she says.

[…]

Police cars, too, are being targeted. The favoured method is to use the slow-burn barbecue fire starters, which take time to smoulder and provide plenty of get-away time for the perpetrators.

That could have come straight out of any near-future urban dystopia or cyberpunk novel you care to name; as traditional party-based politics drifts further and further from being able to represent the fragmented ideologies of populations, angry people will find their voice whatever way they can.

And as economic pressures deepen over time, we’ll probably see similar events cropping up in other crowded and under-funded cities across the Western world… so if you’re not already following John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog, now may be the time to start. [image by Jacob Davies]


Oil rigs are vulnerable to hacking

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2009

oil rigIt shouldn’t come as a huge surprise – after all, anything that uses networked computing is at risk without the proper precautions – but independent researchers have declared oil rigs to be extremely vulnerable to hacking attempts.

While oil companies have made huge improvements in offshore safety and environmental protection, their efforts to secure important data have been poor, the SINTEF team says.

The group says that the current “integrated operations” model, which uses onshore workers to control processes carried out on the platform via networked PCs, leaves communications open to attack.

According to Science Daily, the team interviewed “key personnel in the petroleum sector” to get a sense of the data protection measures currently in place. The interviewees confirmed “that the number of safety incidents on production systems (platforms) has risen during past few years.”

Researchers said that hackers have already made their presence felt on oil platforms.

The worst-case scenario, of course, is that a hacker will break in and take over control of the whole platform,” says SINTEF scientist, Martin Gilje Jaatun. “Luckily, this has not happened yet, but we have heard of a number of incidents that could have turned into something quite dramatic. For example, virus attacks have led to process electronic equipment becoming unstable.

Frankly I’m surprised there haven’t been any major incidents so far, but it’s safe to assume that the inevitable resurgence of oil prices (not to mention the increasingly politicised nature of the fossil fuel industry) will make unmanned rigs into highly appealing target for hackers interested in protest or profit. [image by ccgd]

In fact, the profit motive is probably the stronger of the two… profit, or the prospect of free fuel. Any terrorist group or pirate nation looking for a ready source of the black gold would find it easy enough to hire some disaffected code-kiddie, then pay (or threaten) them enough to get them to bypass the security on an unmanned rig and then fiddle the telemetry for long enough to allow a physical invasion of the platform. Hey presto – a big base in offshore waters with all the oil you could ask for, and a target that even a major government is going to think twice about simply bombing to smithereens


Terrorist strategy as an auto-immune response

Tom James @ 08-06-2009

terrorismAlex at the Yorkshire Ranter reviews The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen and discusses how the strategy behind Al-Qa’ida-inspired terrorism can be thought of in the same terms as an auto-immune disease:

Specifically, auto-immune war is a strategy, but its tactical implementation is the creation of false positive responses. Security obsession gums up the economy with inefficiencies. Terrorism terrorises the public; security theatre keeps them that way. As Kilcullen points out, every day, millions of travellers are systematically reminded of terrorism by government security precautions. Profiling measures subject entire communities to indignity and waste endless hours of police time. Vast sums of money are spent on counterproductive equipment programs and unlikely techno-fixes. National identity cards and monster databases are the specific symptoms of this pathology in the UK, just as idiotic militarism is in the US.

It is the best description of how terrorism actually works as a method of warfare I have come across. Interested readers might also be interested in Wasp by Eric Frank Russell, which deals with terrorism in a practical and humorous fashion.

[image from Dagfinn Ilmari Mannsåker on flickr]


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