Massachusetts Court Could Tell the CIA to Stop Using Flawed Software to Pilot Killer Drones

Jake Meyer by Jake Meyer

The U.S. is increasingly using unmanned aircraft known as drones to fight its wars and kill enemy targets.  These drones are controlled remotely by soldiers thousands of miles away from the action and armed with 100lb missiles — larger drones can be armed with 500lb bombs that are deadly in a radius of over 200 feet.  Concern has been raised about the use of these drones because drones strikes have resulted in civilian casualties.  Civilian casualties are counterproductive to the war effort in Afghanistan where a goal is “winning the hearts and minds” of the local population.  New America Foundation, a public think tank, has reported that 142 drone attacks in Pakistan killed between 1,013 and 1,362 people from 2004 to 2010 and up to a third of the casualties were civilians.  Now a company involved in a contract dispute in a Massachusetts court is alleging that the CIA is using software to guide its drones to targets that was rushed, illegally reverse engineered, and not properly designed for the CIA’s hardware — causing calculations made by the software to be off from 1 to 13 meters (over 40 feet).  The Massachusetts court is currently considering a motion for preliminary injunction and if the court were to grant the injunction, it could possibly force the CIA to stop using the miscalculating software and have more accurate software developed for its drones.

The case involves claims by the Netezza Corporation that Intelligent Integration Systems Inc. (IISI) was under contract to provide a version of IISI’s Geospatial software (an analytical software program that integrates spatial data with non-visual data) to Netezza for a new computer system called TwinFin.  The Massachussetts court dismissed the claims by Netezza in a summary judgment, but counterclaims made by IISI still remain to be ruled on.  IISI’s counterclaims allege that Netezza improperly acquired an IISI trade secret — the Geospatial software — through reverse engineering.  The software licensing agreement contains provisions that explicitly prohibit the reverse engineering of IISI’s Geospatial software and use of its proprietary information.  IISI also alleges that the reverse engineering of the software was to please its client, the CIA, as “Netezza’s own records also show that Netezza was motivated to take this action in order to save face with the CIA.” 

According to IISI, the reverse engineered software that was run on the TwinFin hardware made miscalculations up to 13 meters and the CIA accepted the flawed software.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think of a scenario where the software responsible for guiding a remote controlled vehicle carrying a payload of missiles or bombs to its target could lead to unintended civilian casualties through calculation errors of over 40 feet.  The Massachusetts court could grant the preliminary injunction which might force the CIA to have new software developed to guide its drones.  So the court could find IISI likely to succeed on its claims in the case and grant the preliminary injunction which might force the CIA to develop more accurate software.  Granting the preliminary injunction could prevent more civilian casualties and prevent further setbacks in the goal of winning hearts and minds — as long as the CIA decides it’s not above the law.

The CIA is using an increasing number of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has carried out 20 drone attacks in the month September, 2010 — more than twice the number of attacks in a typical month.  So it’s possible that the CIA would decide that its drone program is too important and ignore the preliminary injunction and continue to use the flawed software for its bombing campaign.  The information around the CIA drone program would most certainly be protected as confidential information and the CIA might claim confidentiality to deny that it is even using the reverse engineered Geospatial software to guide its drones.