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.