The Pentagon’s secret plan to crowdsource intelligence from Afghan civilians turned out to be brilliant — too brilliant.
The only tiki bar in eastern Afghanistan had an unusual payment program. A sign inside read simply, “If you supply data, you will get beer.” The idea was that anyone — or any foreigner, because Afghans were not allowed — could upload data on a one-terabyte hard drive kept at the bar, located in the Taj Mahal Guest House in Jalalabad. In exchange, they would get free beer courtesy of the Synergy Strike Force, the informal name of the American civilians who ran the establishment.
Patrons could contribute any sort of data — maps, PowerPoint slides, videos, or photographs. They could also copy data from the drive. The “Beer for Data” program, as the exchange was called, was about merging data from humanitarian workers, private security contractors, the military, and anyone else willing to contribute. The Synergy Strike Force was not a military unit, a government division, or even a private company; it was the self-chosen name of the odd assortment of Westerners who worked — or in some cases volunteered — on the development projects run out of the guest house.
The Synergy Strike Force’s Beer for Data exchange was a pure embodiment of the techno-utopian dream of free information and citizen empowerment that had emerged in recent years from the hacker community. Only no one would have guessed that this utopia was being created in the chaos of Afghanistan, let alone in Jalalabad, a city that had once been home to Osama bin Laden. Or even more unlikely, that the Synergy Strike Force would soon attract the attention of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Founded in 1958 to help the United States win the space race, DARPA is best known for its role in futuristic technology, be it driverless cars or implantable brain chips. During the Vietnam War, DARPA had led a counterinsurgency research program that spanned the globe from Saigon to Tehran and employed hundreds of personnel, but the agency has been largely forgotten.
However, DARPA’s interest in the potential of open-source information came at a critical juncture in Afghanistan. In January 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, the war in Afghanistan was in its eighth year, and a resurgent Taliban, whose regime had rapidly collapsed after the American invasion in 2001, was challenging the central government’s tenuous authority in the provinces. Counterinsurgency, the doctrine that had been promoted in Vietnam decades earlier, was back in vogue.
For DARPA, getting involved in Afghanistan represented a return to its Vietnam-era roots, after nearly three decades of staying out of war zones. In 2009, the agency launched an ambitious initiative in data mining. Eventually, DARPA brought two data-mining programs to Afghanistan: a highly secretive program meant to predict insurgent attacks based on “big data” science used by companies like Amazon to predict customers’ purchases; and a program based on the emerging science of social networks, attempting under the guise of humanitarian work to enlist an unwitting army of Afghan civilians to spy for the American military. And so DARPA’s first deployment to a war zone since Vietnam began with a group of well-intentioned hacktivists trading beer for data at Afghanistan’s only tiki bar.
In Vietnam, DARPA had made the mistake of trying to “win the war with technology,” as one senior agency official in charge of the work had later recalled. The question once again was whether cutting-edge science and technology could do any better in Afghanistan.
In February 2009, Tony Tether, the longest-serving director of DARPA, was ordered to resign. Obama’s pick to replace him, announced in July 2009, was a public watershed for the agency. Regina Dugan became the agency’s first female director.
As a program manager at DARPA in the 1990s, Dugan had earned a reputation for boldness — and some alleged recklessness — visiting minefields and combat zones to test bomb-detection technology. When she started making the rounds in the Washington Beltway as DARPA director, her choice of attire — short skirts, stiletto heels, and leather jackets — generated as much buzz as her credentials. A self-styled technology enthusiast, Dugan liked talking about theories of innovation. Her lecture style was often better suited to the world of TED, the popular technology conference, than to old-school military briefing rooms. “There is a time and a place for daydreaming, but it is not at DARPA,” she told Congress. “DARPA is not the place of dream-like musings or fantasies, not a place for self-indulging in wishes and hopes.”
One of Dugan’s first moves was to hire Peter Lee, a prominent university computer scientist, to run a key DARPA office. The week before Lee was supposed to start, Dugan asked him to come to Washington immediately. She wanted him to meet with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was scheduled to visit DARPA’s headquarters. As he drove from Pittsburgh to Washington, Lee grew nervous. He was an ivory tower academic, and now that he was about to become a senior DARPA official, he realized he had no concrete plans for the agency. His apprehension grew worse when he was pulled over for speeding. He had visions of multiple tickets and having his license suspended.
The speeding incident, however, provided Lee with inspiration for the new office. He had recently learned about Trapster, a smartphone app that allows users to map and share information about speed traps using GPS. Trapster enabled a virtual army of tipsters to create a real-time map warning drivers of areas where the police may be lying in wait. Trapster finally provided Lee with an idea that he thought might interest the Pentagon chief. Instead of plotting speed traps, he imagined a Trapster-like application that could track potential bomb attacks in Afghanistan. Already, communities of people were collaborating online to track nuclear proliferation, spotting potential test sites in North Korea. Humanitarians were using crowdsourcing to monitor elections and respond to natural disasters. If crowdsourcing could plot speed traps and spot election fraud, perhaps it could be used in war zones.
When Lee presented the idea, the defense secretary seemed to like it. So did Dugan, who encouraged Lee to pursue it. That was the beginning of Lee’s Transformation Convergence Technology Office, a name so awkward it seemed tailor made for hiding the secret programs it would develop.
Dugan assigned to the office a group of military officers working at DARPA on a short-term basis, a sort of professional internship called the Service Chiefs Fellows Program. Normally, the officers toured military laboratories and did not do much substantive work, but Dugan wanted them to create a project with Lee. Soon, Lee and the fellows brainstormed a contest where participants would use social media in something resembling a national treasure hunt. The fellows proposed having teams compete to locate red weather balloons that DARPA would release across the United States.
The Network Challenge, as it was called, offered a $40,000 prize to the first team that could, on a specific day, identify the locations of the 10 red weather balloons placed across the United States. The idea was that teams would use social media to help locate the balloons. The contest would test the teams’ ability to leverage a network, figuring out how to motivate people to participate while weeding out possible fake sightings, and to do it quicker than other competitors. On Dec. 5, 2009, the day of the challenge, Lee’s biggest fear was that no team would identify all the balloons, undermining the point of the challenge. In the end, it took only nine hours for a team from MIT to win. They beat the competitors by using a sliding scale of financial incentives that rewarded not just those who spotted balloons, but those who recruited others who successfully spotted balloons. Alex “Sandy” Pentland, an MIT computer science professor who headed the winning team, called the task “trivial.”
The MIT scientist had reason to be confident. Pentland had already established a reputation as one of the nation’s leading “big data” scientists. His specialty was sifting through data to predict patterns of human behavior, an area he called “social physics.” Pentland’s team had created a novel financial incentive system based on the assumption that people’s actions are dictated not purely by profit but by intangible benefits that come from exchanges that strengthen positions in social networks. “If you look at the models for incentives, or for management through the army, through companies, through economics, they’re all about individual incentives, and they ignore the social fabric. What I just said about red balloons was that it wasn’t about economics; it was about the social fabric,” Pentland said.
Pentland theorized that someone’s position in the network — his or her social standing — was the primary motivator. In his calculation, people act to make their social fabric stronger, not necessarily to earn a bit of money. “I give you a favor. Maybe in the future you’ll give me a favor. That’s what drove this thing,” he said. “That’s a very different way of thinking about things. Instead of paying attention to individuals, you pay attention to relationships.”
Taking what was learned from the Network Challenge and moving it into a formal DARPA program was the next step. “Someone made the observation and brought it to my attention that it might be possible for DARPA to get direct near-real-time access to several hundred data intelligence feeds from the theater in Afghanistan,” Lee recalled. “I thought that was very interesting. Most of the data feeds were classified only at the secret level. Some were even unclassified. One immediate question was, what might be possible if we did large-scale data mining on all of those feeds?” Lee began to contact all the experts he knew in data mining, including Werner Vogels, the chief technology officer at Amazon, who “provided a lot of framing for how we would approach this problem because it’s very similar to the kinds of data mining that Amazon does on its customers.”
What Lee eventually formulated was a data-mining program based on the latest predictive analysis work being done in the commercial sector, but using military data from Afghanistan. “For example, we were trying to understand if the price of potatoes at local markets was correlated with subsequent Taliban activity, insurgent activity, in the same way that Amazon might want to know if certain kinds of click behaviors on Amazon.com would correlate to higher sales of clothing versus handbags versus computers,” Lee said.
Big data were about to be enlisted in a program to predict whether a village in Afghanistan was being taken over by the Taliban or when insurgents might plan the next attack. More important, big data were going to take DARPA back to war.
In February 2010, two months after Lee’s red balloon contest, Dugan did something that no DARPA director had done since the Vietnam War: She traveled to a war zone to see what the agency might be able to contribute. Gen. Michael Oates, the head of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, the Pentagon’s bomb-fighting agency, invited Dugan on a three-day tour of Afghanistan. Military personnel expressed surprise to see her. “You’re from DARPA,” she recalled their general reaction. “We call you when we have three- to five-year problems.”
When Dugan returned to Washington she assembled the office directors and their deputies and gave them a month to come up with ideas for technologies DARPA could contribute immediately to the war in Afghanistan. By April, DARPA had identified about a dozen projects that could have an immediate effect on the war, and then Dugan narrowed those down to a final list. The technologies ranged from a blast gauge that would go in soldiers’ helmets to detect exposure to possible blast waves from IEDs to an imaging sensor, called the High Altitude LIDAR Operations Experiment, which could be used to create three-dimensional maps of Afghanistan.
Dugan’s priority, however, was a new program based on Lee’s big data work, called Nexus 7, which would help predict insurgency in Afghanistan. In August, Dugan met with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and laid out DARPA’s plan for Afghanistan. The data-mining project, her briefing noted, would “sequester [a] team of the Nation’s leading researchers in large scale computation techniques and social science.” She called Nexus 7, a data-mining program named after a humanoid robot in the movie Blade Runner, “the potentially big win.”
In the summer of 2010, Nexus 7 was launched with Randy Garrett, a former NSA official involved in big data, as its head. At the National Security Agency, Garrett had been working on creating a cloud that would allow analysts to search through real-time data as it was vacuumed up by intelligence agencies. This cloud would include “essentially every kind of data there is,” Garrett said, from the millions of calls a day around the world the NSA intercepts, to various forms of internet traffic, from emails to Skype calls. Afghanistan, after 10 years of war, was one of the NSA’s top targets for cell phone interception.
Garrett’s goal with Nexus 7 was to “actually build this big data aggregated environment, a cloud, and then see how you would use it,” according to a scientist who was involved in creating the DARPA program. Nexus 7 was a direct carryover of work started at the NSA, according to the scientist.
Other key members of the Nexus 7 team came from Sandy Pentland’s Human Dynamics Lab at MIT, drawing on the same ideas that drove his team’s win with the balloon contest and applying them to an entire society. Pentland described his contribution as informal, providing more of an intellectual framework than nuts-and-bolts work. At the core of Nexus 7 was Peter Lee, who created the program and ran it from his office. “Nexus 7 turned out to be a bunch of desks, laptops, and secure computers literally in the hallway outside of my office,” Lee said. “It was just a zoo.”
The direct relationship between the NSA and DARPA was one of the hallmarks of Nexus 7, but it was also the most problematic, because working with data from the NSA required navigating a maze of legal and statutory requirements that often prevent sharing and aggregating data among government agencies. As for why DARPA wanted the NSA data, L. Neale Cosby, a retired Army officer who consulted on the program, invoked the bank robber Willie Sutton: “Why rob a bank? Because that’s where the money is.” The NSA was the bank; it had all the data.
Nexus 7 was unabashedly interested in data of all kinds. It was particularly interested in using patterns of daily life, including the costs of transportation and exotic vegetables, to make predictions about insurgencies in Afghanistan. “We were really using the latest research in quasi-experimental design, in machine learning, and data mining literally on hundreds of intelligence feeds to make inferences about what would happen next,” Lee said.
The program was kept secret to avoid any controversy. DARPA workers one office down had little idea what was going on when the group of young computer scientists set up shop in the agency’s headquarters. “We had to have cover stories to tell people if various Beltway people came to visit me in my office and they were walking through this pandemonium,” Lee said. In budget documents, Nexus 7 was obliquely described as a program that combined data analysis and forecasting with social network analysis.
According to Dugan, Nexus 7 started making its “first discoveries”— or meaningful predictions — just 82 days into the operation. But the program soon met resistance. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan when Nexus 7 started, was interested in the data-driven work promoted by DARPA. But in 2010 he was forced to resign after a Rolling Stone magazine profile depicted him and his staff as mocking senior White House leaders. Gen. David Petraeus returned to Afghanistan to take over, but he was not enthusiastic about Nexus 7. A disastrous meeting between Petraeus and Dugan in Afghanistan almost brought it to a halt. DARPA’s proposal for algorithms did not sit well with a general who believed he wrote the book, metaphorically and literally, on counterinsurgency.
At that point, however, Nexus 7 had support from Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a technology enthusiast, who had given an official green light to the deployment of the program and its personnel. (Dugan said Cartwright’s response to Nexus 7’s first discoveries was “Go and go faster.”)
DARPA would eventually deploy more than 100 people across Afghanistan, working on Nexus 7 and other technology programs. Peter Lee, the creator of Nexus 7, was not among them. He abruptly left DARPA after less than a year to become the head of research at Microsoft. On the day he left for Seattle in September 2010 to start his new job, the Nexus 7 team, some members as young as their mid-20s, was departing for Afghanistan. “I should have been with them,” he said.
“It was the first operational deployment from DARPA since the Vietnam War,” Dugan later recounted. The program also became Dugan’s top priority as she shuttled back and forth to Afghanistan with Cartwright. In congressional testimony in 2011, Dugan did not use the Nexus 7 name, but simply described “a 90-day Skunk Works activity” that involved scientists and counterinsurgency experts working on “crowdsourcing and social-networking technologies.”
DARPA’s “army of technogeeks,” as Dugan affectionately referred to them, was young and had no military experience, and the culture shock soon became apparent. Military officials in Kabul were reluctant to share intelligence with computer scientists just out of graduate school, and the intelligence they did provide was not nice and neat, like consumer data. Once in Afghanistan, the analysts began to gather as much intelligence as they could: phone records from the NSA, radar feeds from the military, and intelligence reports. But much of the data that came into Nexus 7 were qualitative, rather than quantitative, which were not easy to plug into a computer program. Even when the data were quantitative, like from radar, they rarely covered the exact same place over time.
By late 2010, DARPA was touting Nexus 7’s successes within the Pentagon, but it was not clear what, if anything, it had accomplished. As members of the team worked on a base crunching numbers from military and intelligence data feeds, another team of contractors, the Synergy Strike Force, was working in the provinces of Afghanistan, swapping beer for data and using crowdsourcing techniques honed in the red balloon hunt.
The Synergy Strike Force was always more a concept than a formal organization, an improbable mix of humanitarians, hacktivists, and technophiles who had set up shop in Jalalabad’s Taj Mahal Guest House, which had previously been occupied by Australian mercenaries. The eclectic group included techno-enthusiasts who wanted to bring the Silicon Valley ethos to Afghanistan. There were a few “burners,” attendees of the annual Burning Man festival, but there were also scientists, security contractors, and a dedicated group from the MIT Fab Lab, short for “fabrication laboratory,” which was building technology, like solar power and Wi-Fi networks, using do-it-yourself engineering.
For a while the Taj was something of an informal meeting place for Westerners in Afghanistan, or “the tiki bar at the edge of the universe,” as Smári McCarthy, who was part of the Synergy Strike Force, explained in a video interview. McCarthy, a self-described information freedom activist, called the Taj “a little oasis on the edge of Jalalabad where you’ve got this strange mixture of military people, private security contractors, NGO people, and crazy people who are out there to try and build infrastructure in their time off. All sorts of people who under normal circumstances would never meet.”
When the Synergy Strike Force took over the Taj, the tiki bar began to attract a mix of misfits, artists, and do-gooders, if for no other reason than that it was probably the only bar in all of Nangarhar province. The motley group, described as “super-powered geeks,” set about building do-it-yourself Wi-Fi networks and other small-scale tech projects for Afghans. It was sometimes hard to see what united them, other than the belief that open-source technologies could, if not save the world, then at least substantially improve it.
In 2010, around the time that DARPA was thinking about data mining in Afghanistan, Todd Huffman, one of the leaders of the Synergy Strike Force, was introduced to DARPA officials at a chance meeting in Washington. Huffman had recently returned from Haiti, where he had been working with Ushahidi, the open-source mapping organization that helped locate victims of the 2010 earthquake. Huffman, a bearded devotee of Burning Man, whose hair on any given day might be dyed in shades of red and yellow, started talking about crowdsourcing in Haiti and similar work in Afghanistan during the elections. It sounded similar to what DARPA was trying to do with a crowdsourced data-collecting program it had developed called More Eyes. Soon, Ryan Paterson, an official in charge of the agency’s newly formed field unit in Afghanistan, showed up at the Taj to spend a month with the burners and anarchists. He even tended bar.
The Synergy Strike Force was perhaps best known for its Beer for Data program, but it had also done crowdsourcing work in Afghanistan to spot election fraud. Unlike the young computer scientists who sifted through Nexus 7 data from the confines of a military base, the Synergy Strike Force would be on the ground —outside the wire, as the saying went — working with Afghans to collect data. “We were referred to as those weird DARPA people,” said one regional coordinator for the program. “Weird for DARPA is a real accomplishment.”
Soon, DARPA was sponsoring miniversions of the Network Challenge in Afghanistan. Under More Eyes, members of the Synergy Strike Force fanned out over Afghanistan in 2011, handing out cell phones to participants in contests to map out areas in the provinces of Nangarhar and Bamiyan. Afghan participants, often drawn from the humanitarian and development communities, were provided with GPS-enabled phones and instructed to mark the location of buildings and streets. As with the red balloon contest, the experiments often had an economic incentive: Winning teams got to keep their cell phones. Participants were not told that More Eyes was intended to provide the military with intelligence, and DARPA never publicly announced the program.
Although some of the experiments involved collecting information on politics or health care, the focus was on gathering data useful to military operations. “Generally speaking, U.S. forces have been very successful at intercepting cellular calls and incorporating them into our intelligence framework,” an undated report by one Beltway defense contractor said. “However, these operations are just the tip of the iceberg of what can be done through cooperative techniques such as crowdsourcing.”
The crowdsourcing projects promoted by groups like Ushahidi in Haiti were dedicated to humanitarian operations, sometimes even in cooperation with the military. But More Eyes laid bare the overlap between crowdsourcing and intelligence collection. According to an unpublished white paper written by DARPA’s Paterson, crowdsourcing would, for example, allow an Afghan to report an attack on a convoy. The report might cue a drone and eventually a military strike. Paterson said More Eyes worked directly with the Defense Intelligence Agency on a project called “Afghanistan Atmospherics,” which involved using “selected local persons to passively observe and report on things they see and hear in the course of everyday activities.”
Paterson described More Eyes as a way “to catalyze the local population to generate ‘white’ data useful for assessing stability at multiple levels (regional, provincial, district and village).” The advantage of this white data, as opposed to the black world of intelligence, is that it is “generated spontaneously by the local population … untainted by influence of outsiders.” In other words, More Eyes was recruiting unwitting spies.
DARPA was clearly concerned that recruiting local Afghans to provide intelligence could be viewed as citizen spying. More Eyes documents warned against using foreign phones “that stand out due to their appearance or advanced functionality and can be an indicator of collusion with foreigners and can invite threats from local insurgents.” The DARPA white paper suggested that the phones be equipped with an application that can delete data, either by the user or remotely, presumably protecting the information from discovery by the Taliban. The members of the Synergy Strike Force at the Taj, some of whom blogged regularly about their experiences, never publicly mentioned the Defense Department, perhaps because many of the team’s hacktivists and technophiles found it difficult to reconcile their self-image as development workers with being military contractors.
The Synergy Strike Force was a bizarre cultural convergence. As hackers around the world were chafing at the American government’s attempts to crack down on self-proclaimed information freedom organizations, like WikiLeaks, the Synergy Strike Force’s information activists were working on a project to help the defense and intelligence communities collect data in Afghanistan. The group touted its work with headlines like “Afghanistan’s DIY Internet Brings the Web to War-Torn Towns,” and it used DARPA money to pay for solar panels for local universities, but More Eyes was really about intelligence collection. Though the Beer for Data effort was never formally part of the DARPA program, the Synergy Strike Force happily offered the one-terabyte hard drive to the Pentagon. Even the DIY internet was an opportunity to mine data, providing a treasure trove of internet traffic in Afghanistan that the NSA could only dream of collecting, according to a scientist leading the project. The program bought laptops, which could be accessed remotely, for provincial Afghan government officials, including the governor of Jalalabad. “Was the More Eyes program successful?” the scientist asked rhetorically. “Well, let’s see. I just put a foreign electronic sensor into the governor’s bedroom.”
In the end, however, the program fell short of its hopes to demonstrate crowdsourcing in Afghanistan. According to the white paper by DARPA’s Paterson, a series of experiments showed that More Eyes overestimated the ability of Afghans to access the internet and the reach of mobile phone services in Afghanistan. “The More Eyes Team quickly learned that only 4 percent of the population had access and skills necessary to access and exploit the Internet,” he wrote. “Rural populations had even less.” The DARPA contract, which ran out toward the end of 2011, was not renewed.
The Synergy Strike Force and its tiki bar “oasis” also soon came to an end. Violence in Jalalabad grew steadily worse in 2010 and 2011. Afghans who had worked and socialized with the foreigners at the Taj received death threats, and the insurgency that Western visitors to the bar were trying to forestall enveloped the establishment. On Aug. 11, 2012, two men on motorcycles intercepted a car driven by Mehrab Saraj, the manager of the Taj and a friend to many who had worked on More Eyes. Saraj, who had survived the Soviet invasion, Taliban rule, and the American invasion, was shot in the chest and killed.
For several years, Petraeus’s reintroduction of counterinsurgency was hailed as a success, at least in Iraq. The accolades were ultimately short-lived. Similar to Vietnam, the local government’s failure to govern effectively in Iraq ended up fueling the insurgency. In Afghanistan, where the central government was even weaker, counterinsurgency by 2013 was being widely derided as a failed strategy. In the end, Petraeus’s approach suffered from the same fatal flaw as counterinsurgency in the latter days of Vietnam. The local government, not foreign forces, must ultimately provide security. Iraq and Afghanistan were counterinsurgency turned on its head.
DARPA never publicly discussed More Eyes. Although the Pentagon later touted Nexus 7 as a success, there is no evidence that it had any useful impact on operations. “There are no models, and there are no algorithms,” one anonymous official told Wired, griping about the program’s deployment to Afghanistan. A more sanguine assessment was published in the Wall Street Journal, which quoted an unnamed former official claiming that Nexus 7’s predictions about attacks in Afghanistan were accurate between 60 and 70 percent of the time. “It’s the ultimate correlation tool,” the official told the newspaper. “It is literally being able to predict the future.” Neither statement added substance to the debate. However, one thing was clear: Nexus 7 did not change the course of the war.
By 2013, DARPA’s work in Afghanistan had drawn to a close, though the Taj, the onetime staging base for More Eyes, lived on as a symbol of the agency’s well-intentioned but ultimately failed efforts to harness science in the service of counterinsurgency. The Taj was nominally open that year, serving stale cornflakes to the rare guest, who could lounge on a rusting lawn chair perched on cracked concrete overlooking the long-empty pool. At the edge of the pool, solar panels, which powered nothing at all, tilted wistfully toward the sun. All that was left of the only tiki bar in Afghanistan was a collection of moldering business cards and a “Synergy Strike Force” combat patch stapled to a piece of wood, the last remnants of the Western patrons who had swapped their data for beer. Outside this onetime oasis of DARPA-funded techno-optimism, Afghans lived and fought much as they had for more than 1,000 years. Inside, the bar stood empty, an enduring testament to science’s ability to transform warfare but not to end it.