Apple Censors U.S. Drone Strike-Tracking App


“At its core was a question: do we want to be as connected to our foreign policy as we are to our smartphones? My hypothesis was no. Americans don’t care about the drone war because it is largely hidden from view.”

That’s how Josh Begley, writing for The Intercept on Tuesday, described the concept behind an app he created five years ago. The app, he says, was a simple one. It merely sent users an alert every time a U.S. drone strike was reported in the news.

Apple rejected the app three times on the grounds that it was “excessively objectionable or crude content,” but Begley didn’t give up on the project.

“Over the years, I would occasionally resubmit the app, changing its name from Drones+ to Metadata+,” he wrote. “I was curious to see if Apple might change its mind. The app didn’t include graphic images or video of any kind — it simply aggregated news about covert war.”

He went on to tell how, after five rejections, Apple finally accepted the app in 2014. It remained in the App Store for a year and was downloaded by over 50,000 people. But then, the following September, Apple removed the app, once again citing “excessively objectionable or crude content.”

Begley persisted. The reason he was writing the post this week, in fact, was because that day — March 28, 2017 — Apple had once again accepted the app. He wasn’t writing to talk about his ordeal with Apple, though. He was writing about the issue that motivated him to create the app in the first place:

As an artist who works with data, I think the story of this app is about more than a petty conflict with Apple. It is about what can be seen — or obscured — about the geography of our covert wars.

He pointed out that over the past 15 years, people have worked tirelessly to document what’s happening on the ground where these drone campaigns are being waged. And that work is certainly praiseworthy. But Begley went further, pointing out what he calls the “difficult truth” of drone warfare — that at the end of the day, we don’t really know who these missiles are killing.

Again, rather than focusing on his spat with Apple, Begley stayed with the issue that inspired him and talked about the end product of that inspiration:

Because the particulars of drone wars are scant, we only have ‘metadata’ about most of these strikes—perhaps a date, the name of a province, maybe a body count. Absent documentary evidence or first-person testimony, there isn’t much narrative to speak of.

The name ‘Metadata’ has a double meaning: the app both contains metadata about English-language news reports, and it refers to the basis on which most drone strikes are carried out.

The only time Begley questioned Apple’s earlier decisions to refuse his app was in his summation.

“Smartphones have connected us more intimately to all sorts of data,” he wrote. “Yet information about drone strikes — in Apple’s universe — had somehow been deemed beyond the pale.”

He used the past tense, of course, because Apple had, that very day, re-accepted Metadata. But as it turned out, the party was short-lived. Hours after Begley’s post ran at The Intercept, Apple pulled his app once more.

Highlighting the suddenness of Apple’s move, here’s how Reason opened its coverage of the news on Tuesday:

This was supposed to be a post about how anybody who wants to easily keep track of U.S. drone strikes overseas can do so through an app on their iPhone. But never mind. They can’t anymore.

Josh Begley chose not to go after Apple in his article when he easily could have. He took the high road and stuck to the far greater issues — the nature of drone warfare itself and how we, as a society, are responding to it in an age of instant communication.

This writer will follow Begley’s lead and not speculate on the myriad possibilities of why Apple seems afraid of his app. That’s the far less important aspect of what’s happening here. It all goes back to the core of the Metadata project and the question that drove Begley to get started: Given the option, would we really want to be as connected to U.S. foreign policy as we are to our smartphones?

Or, in other words, would we really want constant updates on all the killing?

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5 Comments on "Apple Censors U.S. Drone Strike-Tracking App"

  1. This really comes down to more censorship by the state (by state I mean the fedgov & it’s various fascist corporate owners).

    Just as disturbing as the war crimes of the state is the indifference of the american people to these ongoing atrocities.

    • On your point concerning the people I like to quote Ferdinand Lundberg from his 1968 book “The Rich and the Super Rich” :

      We should find a meaningful term for the masses with reference to their inadequacies of judgment. I propose, therefore, that they be regarded, in varying degrees, as handicapped, crippled, unable to make sound judgments and decisions in their own self-interest. They live blindly in a system that offers wide although not unlimited free choice and they are unable to choose wisely. They are victims of their own choices. Nobody protects them from themselves ! The masses are handicapped in that they are ready believers in tales and promises of nimbler wits, prone to give credence to the improbable or very doubtful. They believe that some obvious charlatan – a preacher, a politician, a vendor of cheap merchandise – is going to do something very good for them at only a slight fee or absolutely free. At their most extreme these people are the followers of astrologers, spiritualists, religious dervishes and messiahs of all kinds, very often political messiahs. They tend strongly to resist whatever is objectively the case if it does not harmonize with their delusions.

      Gullibility and muddle-headedness are functions of insufficient intelligence. The intelligent person is prone to make significant distinctions, to analyze, compare, reflect and seek out difficulties in proffered propositions whether flattering or promising to himself or not. Skeptical self-analysis is beyond the powers of the gullible because they already feel insecure, must (as they say) “believe in something” if only in believing. Intimations of any lack in their judgment are resisted. Hence it follows that they believe whatever ethnic, religious or national group to which they belong is inherently superlative. Having little sense of individual identity, they derive their identity from some extensive tribe – hence White Supremacy, Black Power, God-Jesus, Dallas Cowboys, etc.

      While all men may have been created equal, whatever that means, what strikes the most casual observer is their disparity of age, circumstance, capability and condition. And, considering people in general with respect to their judgmental powers, what is most unequal about them is their intelligence.

      • That sounds like elitist nonsense to me.

        The issue is not one of IQ, it is a lack of a moral compass. Being mentally lazy does mean one is stupid. It just means they are lazy.

      • ignorance- planned and controlled. fear – afraid to speak. and some totally occupied in the struggle of living to make enough money

  2. i believe your app would reveal a far greater scale of drone strikes , whole fields of drones , than we have any idea. look how they treat vets who try to talk about the reality.

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