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Tuesday, 16 October 2012 07:11

Apple Rejects Phone App That Tracks Worldwide Drone Strikes as "Objectionable Content"

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We have entered the wild, weird, and uncharted world where unmanned drone strikes are becoming an almost everyday occurrence. As curious-minded folk, it is only natural that we would ask: What do we really know about unmanned drone strikes?

Do we know how many strikes the U.S. is launching? How many people the unmanned aircraft is killing? Do we know what countries -- and which parts of those countries -- are persistent targets of these strikes? The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan recently asked in a column titled “Questions on Drones, Unanswered Still”: “How many of the dead identified as ‘militants’ are really civilians? How many are children?”   

“Accurate information is hard to come by,” Sullivan pointed out. “The Obama Administration and the C.I.A. are secretive about the fast-growing drone program.” Strikes are taking place “in areas where reporters can’t go, or would be in extreme danger if they did.”  

With information about drone strikes hard to come by, both The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union “have filed Freedom of Information requests to learn more about the drone program, so far in vain,” Sullivan pointed out.

According to Sullivan, lack of knowledge about drone strikes hasn’t stopped the “Americans, according to polls, hav[ing] a positive view of drones, but critics say that’s because the news media have not informed them well.”

Naureen Shah, the director of the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University’s law school, told The Times that drone strikes are being “portrayed as picking off the bad guys from a plane. But it’s actually surveilling entire communities, locating behavior that might be suspicious and striking groups of unknown individuals based on video data that may or may not be corroborated by eyeballing it on the ground.”

It is much easier for the government to carry out drone strikes willy-nilly when only a small number of dedicated drone-watchers and committed human rights activists are paying attention. What if we all the access and paid attention?

Drone+ App rejected by Apple

Given supportive polls, despite our general lack of information about drone strikes, and given that we’re living in a screen-filled world where information is at our fingertips, ask yourself this: Why shouldn’t there be an App on your iPhone, iPad or Android that would inform you every time a U.S. drone strikes somewhere in the world? Wouldn’t you want to know if a militant terrorist camp was obliterated or a whether another wedding party was wrongfully hammered?

If your answer is in the affirmative, then Apple Inc.’s refusal to sanction a Drone App will be really disturbing news.

Josh Begley, introduced as a former teen poet grand slam champion and current graduate student at New York University, and dubbed playfully, but respectfully, as an “Internet Provocateur” by the co-host of KPFA Radio’s fabulous Saturday morning program “Father Figures,” was recently interviewed on the program about a number of things, including his idea for an App that would let people know every time the U.S. launched a drone strike anywhere in the world.

Co-host Adam Mansbach pointed out that over the past year or so Begley has “pioneered a number of very provocative web sites and mobile phone apps. … pushing political dialogue on the web in a whole new direction.”

“Most recently,” said Begley, “it was this application … that I’ve been working on for a couple of months called Drones+. …It’s a simple application that sends a push notification every time there’s a reported U.S., drones strike… which is just like The New York Times news alert.”

Unfortunately, said Begley, “Apple actually rejected it three times and said that it was crude or excessively objectionable content.”  

“We have so many streams of information in every way now … so it’s hard to sift through [it all] … so I wanted to play with this idea of what we choose to get notified about in real time and really probe that question. If we do have access to this data, do we really want to be interrupted by it? Do we want to know every time the C.I.A. launches a drone strike in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan.”   

Begley’s App “sends a text alert to your iPhone whenever the media reports casualties from a drone strike,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “It also compiles media reports about the strike, and shows you a Google map with locations of other strikes in the area marked by red pushpins.” 

The App uses data gathered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism -- a not-for-profit organization established in April 2010 and based at City University, London -- which uses reporting from government, military and intelligence officials as well as credible media and academic sources for its database of drone attacks.   

The first two attempts by Begley to convince Apple that his Drone+ App was viable were rejected on the basis of its design and functionality; “Apple said it didn’t have enough features and it wasn’t interesting enough to a wide group of people,” Begley told KPFA’s Mansbach.  He went back to the drawing board and “built in a couple of more bells and whistles, put in a new feed and a map view …” After cleaning up the glitches, an Apple spokesperson finally rejected the App on the grounds that it contained “objectionable content”: “We found that your app contains content that many audiences would find objectionable,” correspondence from Apple to Begley read.  

After Apple rejected the App, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman wrote a story about it and it eventually, and surprisingly to Begley, started ricocheting across the Internet. “Wired plus Redditt equals a lot of eyeballs,” Begley noted.

Since stories about Apple are always of interest, “it pretty quickly descended into an Apple vs. Android debate,” Belgley said. “It wasn’t really so much about drones pretty fast.”

Begley told the Los Angeles Times that he understood Apple’s position: "They don't want to have anything that could be considered controversial by anyone. I get that, and I understand that."

Begley says he plans to learn how to make an Android version pretty fast and also work on a web application. He told KPFA that he would love to have it as an iPhone App and “maybe Apple will reverse their position soon.”  

Meanwhile, The New York Times Margaret Sullivan pointed out that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism “has estimated that, in the first three years after President Obama took office, between 282 and 535 civilians were credibly reported killed by drone strikes – including more than 60 children.”  

Sullivan pointed out that The Times has a responsibility to lead the way in covering this topic as aggressively and as forcefully as possible, and to keep pushing for transparency so that American can understand just what their government is doing,”

Although it is no surprise, it is clear that Apple doesn’t feel the same way about “transparency.”