First Platoon: A Story of Modern War in the Age of Information Dominance, by Annie Jacobsen, Dutton, New York, 2021, $27.99
Annie Jacobsen’s First Platoon is a thought-provoking tale of a U.S. Army unit’s tragic 2012 deployment to Afghanistan that also serves as a warning about the potential for misidentification of individuals when relying on biometric data and surveillance—practices gaining ground in law enforcement both at home and abroad.
The Pentagon had long sought to collect bioscan data—an amalgam of physical traits such as fingerprints, facial scans and iris scans—and combine it with images gathered from aerial sensor platforms in order to track the enemy. In Afghanistan, such data would be used to positively identify and kill members of the Taliban and, in a 2008 strategy shift, also teach the Afghanis how to prosecute captured terrorists in the Western way—according to the rule of law rather than tribal custom.
This was what the 1st Platoon, C Troop, of the 73rd Cavalry Regiment’s 4th Squadron found itself trying to accomplish in Afghanistan’s dangerous Zhari District: patrolling, meeting with villagers and collecting biometrics to add to the digital ID memory bank. The field-accessible database yielded a major coup in June 2012: the ID and arrest of a senior Taliban operative who’d been previously scanned.
The following month, on his fourth day as the platoon’s replacement leader, an overzealous 1st Lt. Clint Lorance ordered those troops to kill several villagers who had not been identified. He was subsequently court-martialed and given a 19-year sentence. Two attorneys who took up his cause argued that the two Afghans who died were Taliban fighters and that Lorance had been wrongly punished.
Jacobsen makes a convincing case that one of the attorneys, using data files in his personal possession, linked similar but incorrect names of the victims and other data to known bomb makers. The men who died were grape farmers. It’s a bombshell finding, particularly since the package the defense put together convinced President Donald Trump to pardon Lorance in November 2019.
One defense attorney’s reported excuse: “Biometrics is not an exact science.”
More accurate, portable and rapid-result DNA testing became available in 2014—just as the U.S. began pulling out of Afghanistan. U.S. law enforcement has eagerly adopted that capability and more. Despite privacy concerns and the continued potential for bad data analysis, more than 1,000 U.S. counties now employ algorithms that rely on overhead or street surveillance and facial recognition software to track known criminals and even predict where crimes might take place. The practice is called “predictive policing.”
“How much further will it go?” Jacobsen asks. Readers who’ve seen the 2002 movie Minority Report might come away from First Platoon thinking the film’s PreCrime units, while Hollywood-enhanced, might not be just the stuff of science fiction.
—William H. McMichael
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