DARPA used bribes, games and beer to track the Taliban

A new book by a longtime defense journalist tells the story of how the Pentagon used creative methods involving technologically-savvy humanitarians to collect data on Afghanistan.

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World,” tells the story of how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) collaborated with a loosely associated group of “humanitarians, hacktivists, and technophiles” to collect crowd-sourced data in 2009, when the Taliban was taking power.

Sharon Weinberger, a journalist and military contracting expert, says that the group, which called itself the Synergy Strike Force, had an unique payment system for the bar where they gathered. A sign on the door said, “If you supply data, you will get beer,” Weinberger writes in her book, an excerpt of which was published Wednesday in Foreign Policy.

“Patrons could contribute any sort of data — maps, PowerPoint slides, videos, or photographs” in exchange for beer, Weinberger said. Synergy Strike Force mostly wanted to help Afghanistan by gathering data on the country, much like how Amazon tracks customer purchases. The group distributed technology, created small internet hotspots for communities, and even used crowdsourcing to help identify and locate election fraud.

The methods eventually attracted the attention of the DARPA, the Pentagon agency responsible for developing cutting-edge technologies, e.g. the internet, and more recently, smart drones.

DARPA hadn’t been actively engaged in combat theater since the Vietnam war, and was ready to be useful. The agency launched a massive data-mining project in Afghanistan in 2009 to gather intelligence for the military and hired several contractor companies to assist.

What sort of data was DARPA interested in? One area of data collection in which the agency was most interested involved “costs of transportation and exotic vegetables, to make predictions about insurgencies in Afghanistan.” The military wanted to find out if they could predict what town the Taliban would target next, based solely on the price of potatoes.

DARPA already had contractors collecting data in Afghanistan, but the Synergy Strike Force had special appeal. One of DARPA’s subcontractors, More Eyes, connected with the loose association of artists and “do-gooders” to help the Pentagon’s efforts.

The Synergy Strike Force’s beer-for-data program was never officially part of DARPA, but the group “happily offered the one-terabyte hard drive to the Pentagon.”

The odd pairing of DARPA contractor More Eyes and humanitarian technology activists paid off. The group gave do-it-yourself internet devices to local Afghans and even delivered a laptop to a provincial governor. “Was the More Eyes program successful?” one scientist, defending the program, asked rhetorically. “Well, let’s see. I just put a foreign electronic sensor into the governor’s bedroom.”

The problem was, not a lot of the country had internet, and data collection was difficult. The contract with More Eyes wasn’t renewed in 2011, and by 2013, DARPA withdrew from the country. “Afghans lived and fought much as they had for more than 1,000 years,” Weinberg explained.

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