Coder for CIA: Drone Targeting Software ‘Far From Ready’
Still wondering if Facebook is a ripoff of ConnectU? That’s nothing. Software firms that developed the targeting systems of the CIA’s terrorist-killing Predator drones are locked in their own intellectual property battle. Their court case has at least an outside chance of halting a program the agency, the White House, and the Pentagon considers vital. And it suggests that the unmanned planes’ weapons aren’t as accurate as the agency claims.
According to emails acquired by Fast Company from the CEO of one of those firms, the agency set too tight a deadline for coders to finish a next-gen Predator targeting program. The code was “far from production ready,” wrote Rich Zimmerman, CEO of Intelligent Integration Systems, known as IISi. In September 2009, Zimmerman noted “problems with some very intricate floating point calculations that are causing me to fail a lot of my regression tests.” Court records aren’t the same thing as proof, but IISi says the targeting system is inaccurate by as much as 40 feet.
To boil down a complex drama, the Predators allegedly find their prey through a version of targeting protocols called Geospatial Toolkit and Extended SQL Toolkit. Those toolkits were developed by IISi back when it used to partner with another Massachusetts software company called Netezza. The partnership’s contract with the CIA became a matter of court record after IISi and Netezza started suing each other — lawsuits that erupted after IISi walked off the contract, citing the allegedly unrealistic deadlines. CIA isn’t a party to the lawsuit.
IISi claims that Netezza wanted to keep the contract, so it created a Geospatial knockoff to hand in. The month after Zimmerman’s email, Netezza president Jim Baum said in an email that an unnamed customer, presumably from the spy agency, “is prepared to deal with early release software. He has a previous generation system so he is able to compare results himself. It is obviously in our mutual best interest to meet this client’s needs quickly.”
Now, that doesn’t indicate that the CIA knew the targeting software was faulty, though a British report charges exactly that. But it does suggest that the agency was willing to take some risk to get it into production. And in total fairness, if it didn’t and there was another terrorist attack, we’d all probably be reading stories about how the “risk-averse” CIA’s fear of mistargeting cost Americans their lives. After all, these emails were sent months after Director Leon Panetta called the drones the “only game in town” for attacking al-Qaeda’s leadership.
A CIA representative told me that the agency declined comment, since it’s not a party to the lawsuit.
If IISi is correct, the drones could be off by as much as 40 feet, meaning they could miss houses and compounds containing terrorists. Now consider that there have been at least 87 drone strikes since the targeting problem was known, and that’s on a conservative estimation. That’s sure to reduce the proportion of Pakistanis living in the areas targeted by the drones who believe they largely target the bad guys. And only 16 percent believe that right now.
It could get worse for the agency. IISi is seeking a court-ordered injunction from Netezza’s use of the software. If that happens, writes Fast Company, “this would either force the CIA to ground Predator drones or to break the law in their use… It is unknown if the CIA has a third option in case of a ban on the use of IISI’s toolkit.” Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle is expected to settle the case by December 7 (ironically, the Pearl Harbor anniversary). The magazine expects that there’ll be some face-saving compromise by then. If not, the CIA needs to find a new game to play against terrorists.
Photo: Noah Shachtman