Time ran out for bin Laden thanks to latest tech
Low-tech approach kept him hidden for years, but being off the grid helped expose him
- By John Breeden II
- May 10, 2011
Although the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed happened suddenly and dramatically, it followed years of mundane analysis, sifting through mountains of data and tracking down even the tiniest lead.
That he was able to remain hidden for so long from the concentrated efforts of the most powerful nation in the world shows the limits of technology if someone is willing to live off the grid.
By most accounts, bin Laden didn’t leave the compound he was found inside for more than six years, and he maintained a low technology profile. In fact, one major clue that he was there at all was the lack of Internet and phone service running into his multimillion-dollar fortress. Presumably someone who could afford such a place could afford basic Internet service.
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Bin Laden likely figured that if an Internet connection was present inside his compound, the CIA would tap in and monitor that traffic. No amount of scrambling or passwords could have stopped us. In any war that involves technology, the United States carries the biggest stick. So instead, the terrorist-in-chief chose not to fight on our terms, which made him suspicious in the long run.
In a way, he might have done a better job of camouflaging his presence if he had set up Internet access. Perhaps he could have built a Facebook page centered on Pakistani marriage traditions, or a bird-watching society, or almost anything that could act as a honey pot network to throw off those who eventually would be watching.
There was some technology inside the compound, but nothing we could snoop on. Looking at the newly released home movies of bin Laden watching himself on TV, I’m struck by the fact my college dorm room had a better AV setup, and it was pretty crappy. Flash drives and computers were found inside the compound, but any data was apparently transported outside via sneaker net, sending couriers to deliver plans and messages to the world. It may seem like an odd mix of low- and high-tech, but it kept us in the dark for a long time.
I was shocked to learn that President Barack Obama was only "about 55 percent sure" that bin Laden was inside the compound before the raid. In fact, the president said in a recent interview that there was a possibility that some eccentric millionaire prince from Dubai would be found instead. That, of course, would have caused a lot of trouble for us internationally, conducting a military operation on foreign soil and not getting our man. But with our technology taken out of the picture, there was just no way to be sure.
Once the man who we thought was bin Laden was killed, we could again bring our technology to bear to make sure we hadn’t slain a look-alike or some unfortunate person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although DNA matching gave the perfect match in time, the on-the-spot technology used was actually facial recognition.
Biometrics is a science that has really come into its own in recent years. Computers can tell fairly easily if the photo you take of someone is the same as a photo lifted from an online site, a TV news broadcast or even a photo of the same person from years ago.
Want to see it in action? Check out this amazing demo provided by Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition. Just point the demo at two photographs sitting anywhere online, and the software will tell you whether they are the same person. I tested this with old photos of myself versus a recent one where I was in a Halloween costume and makeup, and the software wasn’t fooled. Something like this gave the Navy SEALs the ability to confirm they had gotten the right guy.
Bin Laden stayed out of technology’s spotlight and off the grid, and it helped him survive for many years on the run. Had he ceased all his terrorist activities, we might never have found him. But eventually tiny cracks in his façade came to light through his continuing activities, and nameless analysts following leads found his compound tucked away deep inside a nation that was supposed to be helping us look for him.
In the end, if bin Laden wouldn't come to the technology grid, U.S. forces had little choice but to bring the grid back to him.
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.