Social networking goes to war

Call it Gruntbook. As part of its long-term effort to pioneer “network-centric warfare,” the US military has rolled out a social networking system for soldiers in Iraq. Called the Tactical Ground Reporting System, or TIGR, the system was developed by DARPA, the same Defense Department agency that spearheaded the creation of the internet forty years ago. As described by David Talbot in an article in Technology Review, the system is built around detailed maps of the routes of army patrols. Patrol leaders can add photographs, videos, audio recordings and notes to the maps, building a shared intelligence database from the ground up:

By clicking on icons and lists, [patrol leaders] can see the locations of key buildings, like mosques, schools, and hospitals, and retrieve information such as location data on past attacks, geotagged photos of houses and other buildings (taken with cameras equipped with Global Positioning System technology), and photos of suspected insurgents and neighborhood leaders. They can even listen to civilian interviews and watch videos of past maneuvers. It is just the kind of information that soldiers need to learn about Iraq and its perils.

Talbot says that the system, an amalgam of fairly routine Web 2.0 technologies, is for some units “becoming the technological fulcrum of the counterinsurgency.” Right now, soldiers can tap into the system only when they’re at their bases, before or after a patrol. But the military is planning

to install it in Humvees and other military vehicles, allowing soldiers to download and act on new information in real time. Some of these vehicles already have some low-bandwidth connections, and [a spokesman] says DARPA is working on ways to make the software work using these thin pipes. In addition, the system may soon deliver new kinds of information. In the next two to three years, it could offer surveillance pictures from circling unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or other sensor systems. It could store biometric information, so that a soldier could see if a civilian being interviewed was a known insurgent suspect.

One thing that Talbot doesn’t mention in his otherwise excellent article is the fact that cheap, simple web-based systems are also easily available to insurgent and guerrilla forces. It’s clear, for example, that insurgents are already using online mapping tools, like Google Earth, to target attacks and missiles, and other web-based social-networking and data-management tools are well-suited to the kind of real-time information sharing that armies can use to plan and coordinate their actions. Because they’re cheap and easy to deploy – and in many cases freely available over the web – the tools of what might be called social warmaking represent a two-edged sword for large, modern armies. They can provide a powerful new way to share tactical information, but they also tend to level the battlefield.

8 thoughts on “Social networking goes to war

  1. Andrew Turner

    Take it a step further, now that the tools are well understood by a broader user-base, the public can participate in useful ways. Allow for collaboration with locals to provide knowledge, advice, and information to soldiers.

  2. Frank Hecker

    Regarding the use of Internet-based technology by insurgents, John Robb writes a lot about such “open source warfare” techniques in his book “Brave New War” and on his “Global Guerillas” blog. He’s been accused of being overly alarmist, but his stuff is definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in this topic.

  3. Linuxguru1968

    >> Regarding the use of Internet-based technology

    >> by insurgents …

    As a soldier in the field, I’d be less worried about the insurgent with a laptop pinging Pentagon computers than the one with a rifle pointed at my head…

  4. Omsicle

    This is an interesting example of (arguably) consumer technology that has infiltrated the military (and not the other way around). Contrast with the development of nuclear energy, the microwave, the helicopter, and DITA/IETMs.

    Do new modes of social production — UGC, etc — imply that more innovations will be going to (rather than coming from) the military sector?


  5. Linuxguru1968


    I don’t disagree with you that online data sources could be used by terrorists. I’ve pointed out how the “public record pimps” like, and etc. pose a major security risk by publishing detailed information about American citizens including those in highly secure government positions. See: Michael V. Hayden – Head of CIA – which contains addresses, the names and locations of family members. I can only leave it to you imagination what terrorists could do with that!

    With regards to this specific article, we only have the British military’s word about how valuable the information is. They didn’t make any definitive statement that the crude information in the images resulted in deaths. As I recall, the US military censored Terraserver at the start of the war to prevent this kind of problem; it kind of makes you wonder why they are not doing it to Google Earth. If someone is doing civil reconnaissance missions over Iraq during a time of war and publishing them, it seems more like a security breach of the coalition; Google are just the pimps selling the information.

    I still think GI Joe on the ground should be more worried about the insurgent kid with the AK47 than Google Earth!

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