Small Wars Journal

A Step Forward: Smartwatches and Ethnocentrism in Modern Conflict

Thu, 10/11/2018 - 12:02pm

A Step Forward: Smartwatches and Ethnocentrism in Modern Conflict

David L. Harrell

Public releases of smartwatch mapping data have recently been identified by the U.S. military to be a threat to operational security, resulting in changes to Department of Defense policies and restrictions on usage. Operational security lapses, like the aforementioned smart watch data release, aren't the result of a lack of training or knowledge, but rather a military mindset that's confident in superiority over "third-world countries" and seemingly not concerned by data-driven peer competitors. It is an ethnocentric belief that fails to realize that every little advantage matters in modern and future conflict.


The Department of Defense has banned the usage of geolocational capabilities on smart devices while in zones designated as operational areas. This crackdown on devices ranging from smartphones and their respective apps to smartwatches capable of tracking and storing locational data is focused on the “unintended security consequences” of such devices. Those familiar with the DOD’s approach to reinforcing new concepts and rules for service members will expect new annual training to come out of this announcement. While tracking Soldiers’ movements across the globe can lead to operational security concerns, a lack of training and casual integration of wearable technology aren’t entirely to blame. Moreover, the solution to the security concern isn’t one that can be fixed with additional mandatory online training rarely taken seriously. Rather, it’s an issue of indifference and disbelief. Simply put, our ethnocentrism plays a role in the misunderstanding that current and future enemies often found in developing and “near-peer” countries couldn’t possibly utilize data from our “advanced” wearable technology. With difficulty, we are going to have stop believing that we are smarter than the enemy.


Once seen as futuristic and advantageous, wearable technology has become so ingrained within the American public that the tracking of our every moment is seen as commonplace and acceptable. Adverts and marketing barrage the Western world with messaging that data is beautiful and without sharing your steps with multiple commercial entities, your movements count for less. The United States military has even experimented with the technology, issuing Fitbit Flex wristbands to 2,200 Soldiers in 2013 and expanding the program to 20,000 more in 2015. The military community with its above-average focus on physical fitness has embraced the wearable tech movement, and it’s rare to enter a gym or walk down a hallway on a random military base without seeing watches, fitness trackers, and the ubiquitous phone collecting data on our movements.

While most (see most) applications have the capacity to stop or limit the amount of information sent back to the creator of the program or equipment, rare is the person who reads the entirety of the End User Licensing Agreement or concerns themselves with what’s sent back. This data, while seen and touted as protected, is still accessible by everyone from the developer to those who know where to look.  Beyond the legal gatherers of this collected data are those who acquire data of commercial and business entities for illicit gain. Within the accessibility debate, the argument can be made that any number of proven examples of stolen data should lead to a greater concern over our continued self-recording and publishing.

In my observations, there is a commonly held belief that groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other organizations based in developing countries couldn’t possibly access wearable data or even understand it if accessed. This has led to a lack of concern about monitoring implementation of the DOD’s policy toward trackers. (Readers at this point should take note of their local policy concerning these devices and glance at their coworker’s wrists). Even worse is the lack of understanding of the capabilities of the militaries most close to ours in terms of technological prowess. Russia and China have come into their own and recognizing that their forces are at a physical and monetary disadvantage have taken a non-traditional route to attacking others. A premier example of geo-locational data utilized for offensive operations, highlighting Russia’s increased focus on cyber capabilities and asymmetric warfare, was demonstrated in Ukraine where reports of hacks of Android application data was utilized for Russian artillery strikes in 2014. An accountability issue that starts with leaders, stems from the belief that the GPS device on our wrists and data we casually upload could never possibly support terrorist attacks or give an advantage to a side in a state on state conflict.

The long-held belief that our position as the preeminent military of the Western word lends itself to the denigration of opposing forces not commensurate with our technological prowess. This is a mistake, especially with the increased operational data gleaned from Soldiers’ social media accounts then added to OPSEC training and the increase in technological prowess demonstrated by recent online messaging and recruiting campaigns.

Increased numbers of insurgent recruits migrating from Central Europe and other “modern” countries have led to an increased understanding of the exploitable technological potential. In addition, threat enhancers such as commonality of technology and the democratization of socially networked groups working together towards a shared goal allows for stolen information to be utilized by multiple adversaries.

Some have argued, especially in the light of several government agencies publicly allowing the use of certain wearable technology within their work areas, that the threat is overblown and that mass collection of data is not unique to specific groups or units and has little effect on operational security. These decisions have been left up to individual government organizations but as indicated by the Strava map episode for example, dictated policy doesn’t always stop people from continuing to wear their devices. And even within a decreased data set, corroboration of “data-trails” can lead to attribution. An additional common defensive stance on smartwatches is that running trails and walking paths are not tactically important. But those who recognize the dining facility and the gym as the two most popular locations within a deployed military community can easily correlate published movement data to free commercial imagery to successfully determine which building is which and then calculate the most popular times to attack.

Updates and changes to the DOD’s policy on wearable technology and negative public backlash following the Strava release of running data will assist in countering the free advantage that the U.S. armed forces are giving to current and potential adversaries in the future, but a culture change and understanding of the modern foe’s abilities are more important to slowing the leak of exploitable data. This can be completed by conducting an educated analysis on current threats originating from wearable data and related social media and developing solutions to mitigate their advantage to terrorist groups and state actors. Following this, instead of another click through outdated mandatory training, an in-depth example-driven brief can be developed and integrated into preexisting OPSEC training. This will assist in minimizing time-intensive annual training requirements while achieving maximum efficiency.

Future data-focused state conflicts are certain to occur. Networked terrorist communities with illicit access to cellular devices, the internet, and support from modern developed countries exist and will continue to plague our armed forces. U.S. service members must strive to understand changing conflicts and the U.S. military must always seek to improve its mitigation of the advantages it currently gives in current and potential conflicts. Because incapable state competitors and the ignorant nomadic ISIS insurgent eschewing western conveniences and demonstrating a lack of modern war technology simply doesn’t exist in 2018, and it’s time we realize that.

The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of US Army Africa, The Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



About the Author(s)

CPT David L Harrell is a Civil Affairs Officer, with deployments to East Africa and Afghanistan. His civilian occupation is within the intelligence community and he resides in Washington D.C. He is currently the USARAF Civil Military Operations Center Chief in Vicenza, Italy.