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Metadata+ and the Anxiety of Drone Warfare

Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, September 30, 2015, 3:30 PM

If you own an iPhone and are one of the users of the drone-tracking app “Metadata+," you were greeted on Sunday morning with an alert that Apple had removed your app from its online store.

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If you own an iPhone and are one of the users of the app “Metadata+,” you were greeted on Sunday morning by the following message:

A close look at the Twitter handle and avatar in the upper right hand corner of the above tweet reveals the nature of the “objectionable content” in question. The app and Twitter account, both run by artist Josh Begley, alert users and followers to U.S. drone strikes shortly after they take place. A typical entry provides the date, the location, and the sparest of descriptions: “On Saturday afternoon, in the town of al-Saeed, a U.S. drone strike killed 3 men in a car.”

Perhaps Metadata+ was living on borrowed time. It took Begley (who currently works at The Intercept) a year and half to get Metadata+ accepted into the app store; Mashable suggests that the trick may have been removing the word “drone” from the name, which might have allowed the app to slip past the Apple reviewers who initially deemed it “objectionable or crude.” (Under Section 16 of Apple’s terms of service, the company reserves the right to turn down apps submitted to the app store for this reason.) So perhaps Apple somehow realized that Metadata+ was the same as Begley’s rejected app Drone+, and pulled it from the store.


The obvious question, of course, is why Apple would categorize an app that alerts users to drone strikes as “excessively crude or objectionable.” This is not an easy question to answer, especially given a) the wide range of otherwise offensive content that one can download on the app store if one so chooses, and b) the fact that Begley’s app simply collates data on drone strikes from other news sources, many of which themselves have apps available. (Has your New York Times app been pulled yet?)

Setting aside the opaque nature of Apple’s terms of service, however, the saga of Metadata+ is an interesting study of the tensions between two competing and interacting characteristics of drone strikes, both of which have led to a good deal of anxiety as to the United States’ current use of armed drones. Critics of drone warfare often argue that strikes are dangerous because they distance us from the act of killing. But much of the discussion on drones also describes the targeted killing they enable as uncomfortably intimate.

These two ideas might both be true and are not necessarily as contradictory as they might seem. Yet in the case of Begley’s app, they’ve come into conflict with one another in a particularly revealing way.

The argument that drone warfare leads to distancing is, more or less, as follows. On one hand, the practice of killing via drone, thousands of miles away from one’s target and without any personal risk on the part of the pilot, turns combat into a video game and anesthetizes soldiers to the moral and human cost of war. (This is what critics of drone warfare are referencing when they describe the “playstation mentality.”) On the other hand, a war fought by drones is one fought with comparatively low cost in “blood and treasure,” shielding the civilian population from the horrors of warfare and allowing the bulk of Americans to remain blissfully ignorant of ongoing bloodshed.

A small but interesting subgenre of drone artwork has sprung up in response to these perceived problems, with the goal of bringing home the costs of drone warfare to both pilots at Creech Air Force Base and civilians going about their daily lives. One way or another these projects aim to annihilate the comfortable distance that drone strikes create. Metadata+ is (or was) one such piece of art: it aimed to jar smartphone users into awareness about the ongoing conflict. In an interview with Wired, Begley referred to his app as “annoying people into drone-consciousness.”

But this past Sunday, the problem of the perceived intimacy of drone strikes arose with a vengeance when Apple pulled Metadata+. By intimacy, I mean the perverse closeness engendered by targeted killing--particularly the kind of targeted killing enabled by drone technology, where a crew will spend days or weeks surveilling and even getting to know their eventual target. There’s a peculiarly bloodthirsty quality to this kind of violence, one that doesn’t go down easily in a society that often likes to think itself above atavistic rituals of revenge and sacrifice. Not for nothing are the two armed drones currently in use by the U.S. military named “Predator” and “Reaper.”

In other words, Begley’s app--which aimed to break down what many see as the distance created by drone warfare--may have been yanked because it became too intimate. For the Apple reviewers, to list particular deaths at particular times might have come too close to gawking at those deaths. (Think, for example, of the outcry every time that Twitter or Youtube either removes or fails to remove a video of a shooting.) It’s an odd situation that points to the push and pull between the distance and intimacy of drone warfare, and pulls together many of our conflicting cultural anxieties about drones, technology, and our ability or refusal to bear witness to atrocity in the digital era.

A final note: Metadata+ is still available on Android for all those who prefer to steer clear of Apple. And for those who don’t, Begley has a backup app available that appears to have flown under the radar. For now, you can search his name in the app store if you’d like to find it.

Update: that backup app is no longer available.

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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