Could airplane surveillance thwart Baghdad terrorists?

Seeing this article about drones today reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a man I met at a conference. I would identify him by name, but I left his business card in my jacket pocket which is at home, so I won’t be able to give him direct credit until I get back home later.

This gentleman was thinking about how to fight terror in Baghdad. Here was his idea: why not have constant surveillance (from airplanes or pilotless drones) in the skies over Baghdad that had enough detail to track the movement of every person and vehicle in the city. Then, after an attack, the U.S. military could “rewind” the tape and track a vehicle involved in a suicide bombing back through the streets of Baghdad to its point of origin. Knowing where an attack emanated from would be a great start to fighting the terrorists.

Are there reasons this cannot be done? Perhaps the answer is that it simply isn’t technologically feasible. (My father once suggested putting bar codes on the top of every vehicle in Iraq in the same spirit…maybe that would ease the task.) I guess the other problem I can see with this idea is that if we started doing it, the logical terrorist response would be to originate attacks from further away, outside the range of this system. That wouldn’t be all bad. It would both raise the costs of carrying out the attacks and give additional opportunities to catch terrorists at checkpoints before they reach their targets.


And what about the cost ?

Not only the drones, but the software and hardware to process all the data in less than a month.

And even then, if a car originates in one area of the city, what then ? Sending troops to that building to raid it and kill everybody inside ?

Would be easier to put ground cameras in every road intersection, and keep them recording all day long. But same problems again.

Or even easier: getting out of Iraq.


This is a great idea. Kind a mega-Tivo.

On a similar note, I'd wouldn't mind have a little recording device around my neck that would record the last 30 minuutes of my life - so I could rewind it and figure out where I just left my keys... (Or replay back to my wife what she just said to me(!))

Ken D.

Give the terrorist master some lessons for smarts -- OK, diabolical cunning. They will quickly learn to put suicide bombers in non-descript vehicles and route them through low-visibility areas (wooded, parking garages, etc.) Not to mention the huge size of the network that would be needed. They may already be trying some of this, but it won't be simple, or anywhere close to foolproof.


Having this kind of surveillance isn't comfortable when you think about privacy. The idea of tracking the moment of every individual has a 1984 feel to it, doesn't it?


Wow, kind of Big Brother-ish, isn't that? More so than Saddam's secret police. Would you give access to the Iraqi government? Because I'm not sure they would use it well. It would not exactly be an example of freedom in the Middle East.


One problem could be the vulnerability of the planes or drones themselves.


1 hyphenated word:


RFID tags so small they can practically be aerosolized.

Gives "bug spray" a whole new connotation.

FWIW, smaller, powder-sized RFID particles should be commercially available in 1-2 yrs.


Isn't the over reliance on technology basically what got us into the mess in the first place? And what ever happened to shock-and-awe? Did it wear off?

Phuc Upayme

Interesting idea. I'm curious about your view of the civil liberties implication of such a system in both economic and sociological terms. Granted, Iraqis are not protected by the US Constitution, and even if they were this may be legal. But is that an acceptable policy for a superpower occupying or policing an autonomous territory? Would you really be comfortable with that policy?

Jim Driscoll

Won't work, sorry. Nice try though.

Two problems - you're assuming that you could save the data from an area that's larger than LA, and then search it in a reasonable manner. This is technically possible, but practically not - the amount of storage necessary would tax even the kinds of servers that Google has on offer (because you'll need to save at least a week, and it'd need to be a series of stills taken every 30 seconds minimum, and the stills would need to be down to the meter-resolution level at least - that's a LOT of data).

The second, more intractable problem is that it'd be trivial to defeat once the bad guys knew about it. Example: step 1, steal a car (you don't think they use THEIR cars, do you? Step 2, park it somewhere convenient. Step 3, go to a populated, covered area, and change your clothes. Step 4, pick up car, drive, blow it up. Step 5, return to populated area, change clothes.

Yep, just changing clothes in a populated area will defeat meter-resolution imaging.

Britain was able to do this because they used much higher resolutions in ground mounted cameras. Guess how long they'd last in Iraq?

Keep thinking, you may come up with something. Sadly, this isn't it.

As other posters have noted, the simple solution is often the best one: Leave. Now.



Do want to praise you for not using the word "war" anywhere in your post. If this was war, there would be no cars or trucks left operating except U.S. military vehicles. There would be no car bombs because there would be no cars.

We just play at war now.


Levitt, it is time that you announce your campaign for presidency.


Wasn't this in RoboCop?

I'm going to go put on my tinfoil hat now.


No no, not RoboCop. This was in Enemy of the State. That movie where Will Smith is on the run from the NSA. The parallels to todays world in that movie are kind of spooky.

Jeff J

Bens is very right about RFID. You could easily track every car in Bagdad if you put an RFID chip on them.

Sadly these aren't fully developed commercially yet but if you think the Defense Dept. isn't picking up speed on RFID technology you're kidding yourself.






They do not need drones.

They have Areostat Surveillance Systems:


"As other posters have noted, the simple solution is often the best one: Leave. Now."

What exactly is this a solution to? I don't like seeing our soldiers hurt and killed just like everyone else, but if we left now it would surely cause a civil war in which:

1. The fragile central government is dissolved.
2. Potentially hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis die (most of them want peace/democracy).
2. Iran/Syria gain even more regional power/influence. (This is very bad for us and most peace seeking democracies).
3. The region itself destabalizes even further.
4. Possibly even a regional war or worse.

So yeah, why don't we flip off the rest of the world and say "hey we know we started it but whatever, we think it sucks so someone else deal with it"

As far as the surveillance issue, nice idea, but not feasible. Anyway, shouldn't we be thinking about how to attack the source of the problem? How many terrorists have we killed/captured, leaders interrogated, funds seized, etc. and with what success? We need to give them incentives to make the new system work and all we've done is just assumed that they would see them. Well, some of them clearly don't. I don't see this as easy, and I don't have any stellar ideas, but it needs to be done.



dumb question perhaps, but aren't they using drones now in a more limited, intelligence-gathering fashion? Such as advance work for convoys?


I agree totally with enx. They pooh poohed the domino theory after we cut-and-ran from Vietnam. But just look what happened.

1.)Venezuela appears to have gone communist.
2.)Canada may as well have.
3.)Hollywood definitely has.
4.)And France is thinking about it.

Just remember what Marx said, "When the time comes for the last capitalist to hang, China will sell us the rope".