Lisa Ling served almost two decades in the Air National Guard, working on communications technology and drones. After an honorable discharge, she discovered her work had led to the deaths of hundreds of people. On our latest episode of Ars Technica Live, she tells Ars editors Annalee Newitz and Cyrus Farivar how that experience turned her into a whistleblower.
Civilians know almost nothing about military drone programs, and Lisa told us that it wasn't much better on the inside. She joined the National Guard to be a nurse, but her technical skills quickly got her moved into a role working with computers and comms equipment. After a few years of that, she was reassigned to work on drones. But she didn't realize, at first, what she was building.
Lisa described how she was given parts of the drones to work on without ever being told how her bits would fit into the larger project. She was deployed to Afghanistan multiple times and noticed what she called "traumatized soldiers," but at the same time she was a good military tech. She didn't question her orders, and she did her work to the best of her ability.
Though she couldn't talk to us about the exact technologies she worked on—doing so might get her arrested—Lisa did say that she was dismayed by how inaccurate drones truly are. They are touted as machines for surgical strikes, but she said her experience was that, in practice, distinguishing between an enemy and an innocent bystander was incredibly hard.
Even more disturbing, said Lisa, was the environment of sheer terror that the drones created in small Afghan communities. Lisa pointed out that, in more traditional scenarios, planes fly overhead only to drop ordinance. But armed drones can circle overhead for many hours, leaving the people below in constant fear for their lives. She compared the endless circling to walking through town while carrying large machine guns, pointing them at people randomly. It felt to her like a terrorist tactic.
She also said that she'd signed up for the military to work for her country, not for corporations. A big part of the push for drones is coming from military contractors like Raytheon, which stand to profit from the adoption of their machines. Lisa said it became obvious to her while in the military that corporate interests were guiding military decisions.
When she left the military, Lisa got two commendations for her work. One said that she'd affected the lives of more than 100,000 Afghanis with her work, and the other said she'd killed hundreds. That was the moment she decided to become a whistleblower, testifying before the European Council and speaking out in the media. She appeared in a celebrated documentary called National Bird, about drone operators.
It wasn't a choice she took calmly. Lisa emphasised that folks contemplating turning into whistleblowers within the army ought to assume very arduous about it first, learn some books, and remember to retain a lawyer earlier than talking out (she discovered her lawyer by means of the group Expose Facts). Lisa nonetheless worries that she could possibly be arrested, although she has been cautious to not reveal any info that is perhaps thought-about categorised.
Finally, Lisa stated that the technical and moral points with drones are intertwined. To repair these points, she urged individuals to teach themselves about how drones work and the way they're used. She believes army drones have to be disarmed instantly, and she or he urged us to inform our representatives to take action. The fear of drones comes from the mixture of surveillance and lethal menace, she stated. Definitely we should always regulate surveillance, however first we have to take away the menace.
For extra from Lisa, take a look at the complete interview above in both video or audio type. And do not forget to return to the next Ars Technica Live at Eli's Mile High Club in Oakland, California, on August 20. Our visitor might be Catherine Bracy, a co-founder of the brand new Oakland-based group TechEquity Collaborative, aimed toward serving to the tech business foster financial alternatives for everybody.
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