The Complex

Irony Alert: Pentagon Now Sees Big Data as 'National Security Threat'

The data divers at the Defense Department know better than most how to track down someone just by looking at his phone records. Now they want to know if America's enemies could cause a fiscal meltdown or a massive cyber attack by combing through Netflix queues, Uber accounts, and Twitter feeds.

The doomsday thinkers over at DARPA are looking for researchers to "investigate the national security threat posed by public data available either for purchase or through open sources." The question is, could a determined data miner use only publicly available information -- culled from Web pages and social media or from a consumer data broker -- to cause "nation-state type effects." Forget identify theft. DARPA appears to be talking about outing undercover intelligence officers; revealing military war plans; giving hackers a playbook for taking down a bank; or creating maps of sensitive government facilities.

The irony is delicious. At the time government officials are assuring Americans they have nothing to fear from the National Security Agency poring through their personal records, the military is worried that Russia or al Qaeda is going to wreak nationwide havoc after combing through people's personal records.

As timely as this new DARPA project is, it wasn't NSA snooping that piqued the agency's interest. It was Brokeback Mountain. In 2009, Netflix sponsored a contest to improve its movie recommendation algorithm. Things went off the rails when a pair of researchers used supposedly anonymous information provided by the company to identify Netflix customers, by comparing their film reviews with reviews posted on the Internet Movie Database. A closeted lesbian who had watched the award-winning gay cowboy flick sued Netflix, alleging her privacy was violated because the company had made it possible for her to be outed.

DARPA's requests for research proposals points to the Netflix debacle, and the lawsuit, as a cautionary tale. Part of the research is aimed at identifying which potentially dangerous databases and computing tools are out there.

And in a second bit of irony, DARPA suggests a few, including "low-cost big data analytic capabilities" like Amazon's cloud service. That's the service that the CIA wants to use to build a $600-million cloud for the intelligence community. Could a tool meant to serve the spies' computing needs end up being used against them? Researchers who think they have the answer may submit their proposals starting Aug. 26.

National Security

The U.S. is Buying Even More Hardware For Yemen's Military

U.S. drones have been battering Yemen, killing at least 28 people, and American spy planes watch from overhead. And now, Yemen's skies are looking to get even more crowded. The U.S. Navy is helping the Yemeni air force buy 12 light spy planes, adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military aid the U.S. given to the Sana'a regime.

The Navy's Light Observation Aircraft for Yemen program aims to buy 12 small planes -- or maybe choppers -- equipped with infrared and night vision cameras and the ability to beam the images collected by those cameras back to a ground station. (The image above shows one of the Iraq air force's CH2000 light obsevation planes.)

"The contractor shall also provide pilot, sensor operator, and maintainer training and associated training materials all in Arabic," reads an Aug. 8 U.S. Navy notice to potential suppliers.

The Navy wants to buy the aircraft on the cheap, too. This is a "Low Price Technically Acceptable source selection, " which means the lowest bidder who meets the bare minimum technical requirements for the Yemenis will get the contract.

As FP's Gordon Lubold and Noah Shachtman reported earlier this week, the U.S. has recently reopened to the door to military aid to Yemen following a yearlong suspension over concerns about human rights abuses by the government of Yemeni's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The U.S. currently gives the Yemeni military everything from light spy planes, night vision goggles, weapons and tiny Raven drones to hunt terrorists. In addition to the hardware, the U.S. spends millions of dollars to train Yemeni terrorist hunters to use the gear.

As Lubold and Shachtman note, one of the big problems with all this is that the U.S. has few people on the ground to oversee the use of all this gear it's providing to Yemen due to the dicey security situation there.

"Because of leadership and coordination challenges within the Yemeni government, key recipients of U.S. security assistance made limited use of this assistance until recently to combat [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in support of the U.S. strategic goal of improving Yemen's security," states a March 2013 GAO report.

Then there's the ring of American around Yemen that U.S. aircraft and special operators can launch missions into the country from. Remember, the U.S. had thousands of troops along with a rotating fleet of bombers, drones, and spy planes at its regional hub at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. It's also got secret airfields deep --and we mean deep -- in the Saudi and Yemeni deserts said to host CIA drones. There are also airfields used occasionally by U.S. forces and drones further away in places like the Seychelles, Ethiopia and Oman.

It remains to be seen whether this small arsenal is enough to stem the growth of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) there. After all, four years of drone strikes in Yemen and AQAPs numbers are rising.

U.S. Army