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The Fingerprints of a Drone Strike

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, March 19 2014

A woman works with a forensic architect in recreating the scene of a drone strike in Waziristan (Forensic Architecture)

A woman dressed in a black hijab is highlighted by the glare from a computer screen as she works with forensic architects in digitally recreating her home, the scene of a drone strike in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, Pakistan where five men, one of them her brother-in-law, were directly hit and killed on Oct. 4, 2010. This is the spot where she had laid out a rug in the courtyard, she explains, and where her guests sat one evening when the missile dove into their circle, leaving a blackened dent in the ground and scattering flesh that later, she and her husband had to pick up from off of the ground so they could bury their dead.

Morbidly, the digital reconstruction of a drone strike is similar: the gathering of flecks of information when nothing else is available. Through satellite imagery and video, the length of a building’s shadow, the pattern of shrapnel marks on a wall, and the angle of a photo, can help forensic architects determine where a missile struck and determine how it led to civilian deaths.

Forensic architecture is an emerging data and tech-driven field of investigation that is about three years old. One of its pioneers, Eyal Weizman of UK-based Forensic Architecture, says over Skype, “We think of ourselves very much like archeologists of contemporary ruins.” They use technology to piece together conflict-related atrocities or human rights abuses. Data comes from a variety of sources: visualization software, video and photography, eyewitness reports, satellite imagery, GPS, radar, and the media.

Brad Samuels of the research and architectural studio SITU based in Brooklyn, collaborated with Forensic Architects on the UN drone project. He explains, “Part of what we’re trying to demonstrate here is that when you leverage the full potential of different types of technologies, synthetically or in combination with each other, it’s possible to say more and know more.” This is especially useful when governments refuse to disclose material or acknowledge a particular event.

For the UN drone project, the forensics team analyzed 30 cases selected by Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights, who presented his findings before the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.

The drone analysis website features five of these cases in depth and explains the various methods forensic architects used to uncover information about the strike from very limited amounts of data.

One case involves a drone strike in a market area in Miranshah, North Waziristan on March 30, 2012 and analyzes rare footage smuggled out of the region. The video is shot at a depth that suggests caution and avoidance of open windows; the concern is warranted since video equipment in and out of this region is forbidden. It took weeks for the video to reach NBC Islamabad bureau chief Amna Nawaz.

Carefully studying the way the camera moves and even where shadows fall – also known as “shadow analysis” – enabled forensic architects to digitally recreate the building and use animation to test how shadows in the building fall at different times of the day. By matching the pattern of shadows in the model with how it falls in the video, they can determine when the video was recorded – and if filmed shortly after the strike – when the strike occurred.

Matching clues from the video image to the satellite image to determine the location of a bombed building. (Credit: Forensic Architecture)

Using shadow analysis to determine the height of a building. (Credit: Forensic Architecture)

The team at Forensic Architects also analyzes the damage inflicted by explosions. For example, every type of missile has a unique breaking pattern when it makes impact, so the explosive’s model, make and country of origin can sometimes be determined. Fragmentation patterns on the wall created from the missile’s explosive head can reveal whether civilians were killed. Lower density patterns of the fragmentations indicate that a person or other object has absorbed the shells released from a blast.

“These videos,” says Weizman, “do three things. We undertake the investigation while telling viewers how we do what we do and in the end we also reflect on how confident we are about the results.” In this way, human rights activists or journalists can learn how to conduct their own forensic architectural investigations.

There are limitations to obtaining data, however. With satellite imagery, even the highest resolution images degrade to a pixel that translates to 50 cm by 50 cm of actual terrain. This means that a drone could easily hide undetected in one of those pixels, says Weizman, as well as damage caused by strikes.

When asked if this an uncanny coincidence, Weizman explains, that while there is prerogative for states and militaries to maintain an advantage, that 50 by 50 pixel is also proportioned to hide a human. Satellite imaging companies may simply be complying with privacy laws. Even so, this loophole allows countries to deny drone strikes, notes Weizman, since drones are beyond the threshold of detectability in the available satellite imagery.

The UN report by Ben Emmerson notes how that loophole can be closed: the countries involved in drone strikes and implicated in the report – the U.S., U.K. and Israel – should disclose information that might assist in determining whether the use of drones has led to a disproportionate amount of civilian casualties. These countries have failed to do so. Even if drone-operating countries have not violated international law, they are violating norms of transparency in refusing to offer the public an explanation and analysis of why civilian casualties have occurred and what can be done to prevent them.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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