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“Watch the skies”

June 2nd, 2009 - 5:15 am

Wired describes the alleged use of RFID (radio frequency identification) devices to track hostile forces in Afghanistan. “Nineteen year-old Habibur Rehman made a videotaped ‘confession’ of planting such devices, just before he was executed by the Taliban as an American spy. ‘I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at Al Qaeda and Taliban houses,’ he said. If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars.” A link is provided to a Virginia manufacturer which advertises devices suitable for “High-Value Target Tagging Missions” and “intelligence operations”.

What is RFID? Published literature describes it as “a tag made up of a microchip with an antenna, and an interrogator or reader with an antenna. The reader sends out electromagnetic waves. The tag antenna is tuned to receive these waves.” They come in ‘active’ and ‘passive’ varieties. The passive tags require illumination from a reading device and transform it into power to return a signal. Active tags are provided with a battery to broadcast on their own.  Some devices use a strategy called “energy harvesting” to store up energy from neary electromagnetic sources until enough is accumulated to send a burst transmission out.  A suitable tag can theoretically be read from outer space. “Active RFID tags, which use a battery to broadcast a signal and are used on cargo containers and other large assets, could be read from a satellite if there is little RF “noise” (ambient RF energy that causes interference) and the broadcasted signal is powerful enough. ”

Wired says the hardest part about using the RFID system is getting them onto the right targets. The 19 year old American spy executed by the Taliban was quoted as saying “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money.”  But targeting decisions may  rely on multiple sources of data, of which the readouts from RFID tags are just one.  In any event, like their logistical counterparts, the tags are probably used to collect information on movement patterns, so that any strike will be within the pattern, thus reducing the probability of misidentification. Used in statistically sufficient quantities, they will probably yield useful information even if the Taliban active sweep themselves for bugs and make it hard for the enemy to employ deception unless they devote significant resources to misdirection.

Perhaps their most important use is to make the Taliban suspicious of any and every piece of equipment that comes their way. Cellular phones, music players, clothes — potentially anything at all — could be a death warrant from America.  Wired notes, “ever since 9/11, locals in Central Asia and the Middle East have spread tall tales about American super-technology: soldiers with x-ray glasses, satellites that can see into homes, tanks with magnetic, grenade-repelling armor.” If the effect of RFID tags makes the Taliban suspicious of anything more advanced than a rock, then among other things it creates a philosophical dilemma for them.  An ideology which idealizes the 8th century may eventually have to ask itself if it truly wants to live in a universe with nothing complicated enough to betray them.

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