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US Mini-Satellites to Track and Kill Terrorists

The US government is developing the ability to launch small, water-jug size satellites into space quickly and cheaply. The satellites will help US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) forces to track and hunt down people considered threats to the US and its interests, according to Noah Shachtman’s May 2013 Wired report .

For years, special operators have used tiny dynamic optical “tags” to clandestinely mark their prey—and satellites to relay information from those beacons, as David Hambling and Noah Schachtman reported for Wired in 2009.  The GPS tags, which are smaller than three inches in size and weigh a few 2.5 ounces, can send SMS messages when someone walks or drives nearby. (SMS is an acronym for short message service, which most people are familiar with in the form of text messages, sent and received from mobile devices.)  As Hambling and Shachtman reported, the Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), spent years developing the “small, environmentally robust, retro reflector-based tags that can be read by both handheld and airborne sensors at significant ranges.”

However, with areas of the world where satellite coverage is thin and cell towers cannot act as an alternative relay, SOCOM’s new miniature communications satellites provide enhanced tagging, tracking and locating (TTL) coverage for its operations. According to Cobham Pic, a British firm that supplies American special operators with TTL gear, “These solutions give intelligence as to the ‘pattern of life’ of subjects, as well as being used for live tracking, location and apprehension of criminals.” TTL technologies also make it possible to keep track of targets’ e-mail, instant messaging and web activity.

The federal government’s purchasing database indicates that, over the past years, TTL technology companies like Cobham Pic, Blackbird Technologies, Inc., and EWA Government Solutions have signed multi-million dollar contracts with the US Army, Navy, and SOCOM.

Sources:  Noah Shachtman, “With New Mini-Satellites, Special Ops Takes Its Manhunt Into Space,” Wired, May 21, 2013, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/05/special-ops-mini-sats-manhunts/.

David Hambling and Noah Shachtman, “Inside the Military’s Secret Terror-Tagging Tech,” Wired, June 3, 2009, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/06/inside-the-militarys-secret-terror-tagging-tech/.

Student Researcher: Lejon Butcher (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Sandra Shand (Sonoma State University)