Contrary to the continual rationalizations by NSA defenders such as President Obama that metadata is benign – that it is only used to see patterns not identify individuals – it is now being reported that metadata alone is the basis for lethal drone strikes. According to First Look Media metadata, not human intelligence, is the tool the NSA is using to locate people to be assassinated by drone strikes.

Needless to say while defenders of the program claim individuals can not be identified using metadata, the NSA privately disagrees.

According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.

The information from metadata is good enough to justify killing people abroad but not revealing enough to require a warrant at home?

This story is more revealing of how dishonest the NSA’s defenders are than it is some demonstration of reckless targeting. Metadata is extremely revealing – the number, the location, time of the call, and to whom. It is rather solid intelligence which is exactly why it is anything but benign and should require a warrant to collect on any American under the Fourth amendment.

As the former JSOC drone operator describes – and as classified documents obtained from Snowden confirm – the NSA doesn’t just locate the cell phones of terror suspects by intercepting communications from cell phone towers and Internet service providers. The agency also equips drones and other aircraft with devices known as “virtual base-tower transceivers” – creating, in effect, a fake cell phone tower that can force a targeted person’s device to lock onto the NSA’s receiver without their knowledge.

That, in turn, allows the military to track the cell phone to within 30 feet of its actual location, feeding the real-time data to teams of drone operators who conduct missile strikes or facilitate night raids.

Well hello domestic drones. Don’t worry they’re just collecting metadata, that can’t be used for anything important.

We are all just at the beginning of the discussion we need to have on electronic surveillance and the lack of limits on US intelligence agencies. The Obama Administration review panel is not even a first step, it’s a baby step at the beginning of a marathon. There are currently no real limits on this awesome power and that means Americans are increasingly sinking into a surveillance state where privacy and legal protections suffocate and die a slow death.

Photo by US Air Force under public domain.