Home » News » Around the Globe » Insurgents Used Cell Phone Geotags to Destroy AH-64s in Iraq

Insurgents Used Cell Phone Geotags to Destroy AH-64s in Iraq

by John Reed on March 15, 2012

Here’s a battlefield safety issue that some people have been warning about –and others have been ignoring —  for a while now; an enemy using social media and cellphone geotagging to identify the precise location of troops on a battlefield.

When you take a photo with your cellphone, the gps coordinates of the location you took the picture is embedded into the image. When you upload said photo onto the internet for all to see, people can pull the location data from that picture. If you think this is just people being paranoid and that the Taliban would never do this in Afghanistan, think again. Insurgents figured out how to use this to their advantage in Iraq years ago. In 2007, a group of Iraqi insurgents used geotags to destroy several American AH-64 Apache choppers sitting on a flightline in Iraq.

From an Army press release warning of the dangers of geotags:

When a new fleet of helicopters arrived with an aviation unit at a base in Iraq, some Soldiers took pictures on the flightline, he said. From the photos that were uploaded to the Internet, the enemy was able to determine the exact location of the helicopters inside the compound and conduct a mortar attack, destroying four of the AH-64 Apaches.

During Israel’s 2006 war in southern Lebanon with Iranian-backed militia (more like a full on army) Hezbollah, Iranian SIGINT professionals tracked signals coming from personal cell phones of Israeli soldiers to identify “assembly points of Israeli troops that may have telegraphed the points of offensive thrusts into Lebanon.

This is just one more example of low-end cyber warfare that can be as deadly as expensive software worms designed to infiltrate an enemy’s most heavily defended networks.



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{ 72 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon March 15, 2012 at 11:19 am

1) Who doesn't know about this technology?
2) Why aren't soldier specifically told about this
– and not to take pictures of critical elements

Don't people remember, "Loose lips sink ships".
Troops responsible for this should be brought up on charges.
Ignorance is not an excuse, especially during war.


tiger March 15, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Well I did not. Because I don't use a phone with a those gizmos. I actually just make phone calls. Why do they need a phone in the field for any way?


Marc Pavone March 15, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Soldiers are told not to do stuff like this. It's in the SAEDAA (Subversion And Espionage Directed Against the Army) briefings they regularly receive. The problem is, not all of them take it seriously or listen in the first place.

Even in peacetime soldiers have to listen to SAEDAA briefings. Even then they don't all listen.


TMB March 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm

1. This tech is relatively new and most people I know don't know their phones can do this.

2. Soldiers have been specifically told about this for the last 2-3 years I believe.


TMB March 16, 2012 at 11:34 pm

And most flight lines (probably all) have signs everywhere that say "don't take pictures."


spetsnaz February 27, 2013 at 4:49 am

fk u american's go fk yourself hahahhahahahhaha


Ryan March 15, 2012 at 12:28 pm

I guess the simple solution is don’t carry cell phones or snap pictures in a warzone. Good luck enforcing that though.

If you do take pictures, use something without a GPS embed.


blight_ March 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I'm surprised they'd do it.

I doubt soldiers would knowingly put themselves and their fellow soldiers at risk if they knew what they were doing had tactical consequences: rather, I'm willing to assume it is because we naively assume our enemies aren't on flickr or aren't adept with mining social media for intelligence. Our enemies do use the internet mostly for communication in as clandestine a means as possible, putting them on the defensive. But it doesn't mean they won't use it "offensively" to collect information.

Lesson learned. It happens. We'll all move on.


tiger March 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm

They are not all illiterate sheep herders. Just like the fake Face book thing. Our foes are getting smarter.


Praetorian March 15, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Knowing this, could’nt we use this as a trap now ? Take a picture of a flight line, post the pictures after the flight line is moved, set up some sort of mock up flight line, then wait for incoming attack and pounce. Also with the Facebook thing send them dis-information.


blight_ March 15, 2012 at 2:08 pm

They'd still be firing into your base, and presumably might log and register it as an actual flight line in case they don't hear secondary explosions. Best not to give "them" any information.


pavo6503 March 20, 2012 at 9:01 pm

that is a very expensive and complicated plan. Plus our bases in Afghanistan are on their turf. They see an know all of our movements.


Jacob March 15, 2012 at 3:19 pm

It shouldn't come as a surprise that our enemies are smart. History is full of examples of humans coming up with creative and ingenious ways of fighting wars. The Germans didn't expect us to break the Enigma code. The British didn't expect the Italians to use minisubs to sink their warships. The list goes on and on.


SFCRET March 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm

We are fighting evil. Osama Bin Laden (evil) Terrorists (evil) Taliban (evil) Kim Jung
IL (North Korea) evil, Leader of Iran evil, Stalin evil, MAO evil, Hitler evil.


blight_ March 15, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Many of the Iraq insurgents by and large simply wanted us out of Iraq or were avenging dead family members. Family member killed at checkpoint? Honor demands they not turn the other cheek. It took us four or five years to unwind the chain of honor-bound killings and separate the nationalists from the Al Qaeda types, and to get the Sunnis and Shias to stop killing each other. It doesn't make them evil, it makes them human.

In Afghanistan, the Pashtuns have legendarily repelled all sorts of outsiders. Today Pakistan is their friend. If Pakistan came in tomorrow, the Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan would fight Karachi tooth and nail. Outsiders seeking to occupy aren't welcome in Afghanistan.

That said, we could always cut our losses and stick to the Panjshir valley. It would be the Puntland to Afghanistan's Somalia.


SFCRET March 15, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Saddam was evil, Al Qaeda are evil, osama bin laden was evil, taliban are evil.


James Romines March 20, 2012 at 3:03 am

It’s been a discipline issue since electronics got small enough to become ‘pocket litter.’ In Vietnam, we didn’t bother to use encrypted radio communications, partly because “they are dumb ***** who wouldn’t understand english, anyway.” It was only in NVA interrogation sessions that we learned that a significant number of their officers had attended colleges and universities during the nineteen-fifties, and graduated with honors! Our leadership still doesn’t conduct proper ORM analysis, and our troops still don’t follow orders they don’t like. We’re still, too often, book smart and street dumb. Part of this problem is that we don’t stop to try to think like our potential enemies. It’s still true that there isn’t a US military airfield anywhere that doesn’t have large signs posted everywhere near the flight-line that say “NO PICTURES”!!! I don’t know about Army patrols, but I know that USMC and SeaBees always inspect to be sure that the only things in pockets are the absolute minimum required for the mission. Discipline! Discipline! Discipline! That ‘pocket litter’ makes noise, and limits range of motion, and all sorts of other problems in tactical situations. IT IS ALWAYS A MATTER OF DISCIPLINE.


pavo6503 March 20, 2012 at 9:20 pm

I remember reading something to the effect of, "Inspect your troop's knapsacks often, for they are prone to collecting all sorts of nick-knacks and refuse. This serves only yo slow their march and distract them from their duties." I doubt the man who wrote that ever expected soldiers would have access to, and use, items that would give the enemy timely intelligence.


blight_ March 20, 2012 at 10:52 pm

This sounds like something Hackworth (or any number of snake-eating leaders) would say. I might've even seen it on old WW2 notes on lonesentry.


notasblindasyou March 15, 2012 at 1:56 pm

blah blah……

Using the same technology currently being placed on our military vehicles and in certain cities to locate the source of a shooting by triangulating sound wave arrival times could easily be used to figure out where ANY of our loud vehicles are ultimately parked.

Simple math and 3 microphones……….


mpower6428 March 15, 2012 at 1:59 pm

isnt the NSA suppossed to be making that sort of stuff usefull TOO US…?!


A.Physicist March 15, 2012 at 2:37 pm

The Army Times story smells funny. I think this falls into the category of "wash your razor with cold water to make the blade sharper and longer lasting" fib which was spread around in Vietnam, and really just encouraged soldiers to minimize hot water use. Geotagged photos give you no information about the flight line that wasn't available from publicly available satellite imagery, unless AQAP has a 'rapid facebook feed response team'. I doubt that a few extra meters of precision makes much of a difference to an unguided rocket or hillbilly mortar.


A.Physicist March 15, 2012 at 2:43 pm

To add one thing: The AH-64 story is likely apocryphal, but with some basis in fact. A likely scenario is that:

a) A G.I. posted a geotagged photo online somewhere.
b) Subsequently, a mortar attack got lucky in damaging a cluster of Apaches sitting on the apron.
c) HQ does an investigation, and finds that geotagged photos _may_ have contributed to AQAP knowledge of aircraft positions, but that no specific evidence links the photos to the attack.

OR perhaps the specifics of the attack are figurative/from a different event, but that geotagged images have shown up in captured laptops. Unless there's a specific claim that these exact geotagged photos were found on the person of the attacker, I very much doubt the claim. Still, it is a credible threat for the future.


Hunter78 March 15, 2012 at 8:53 pm

I too am skeptical. What intel produced this story? Generally we know damned little detail about the insurgent ops.

What did these geotags tell the insurgents, assuming they used them? I believe most geotags today only give the location of the camera, not the images in the picture, though some formats indicate the direction the camera was pointed.

Can we rule out alternate explanations? People have been hitting targets with mortars since they were invented. Unreasonable to assume some spotter was phoning in directions?


xbradtc March 15, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Five years ago, not a lot of people worried about the geotagging feature on their phones. Or even knew about it. Today, every troop knows to turn it off.


BAJ15 March 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm

This gives new meaning to "loose lips sink ships".


TLAM Strike March 16, 2012 at 1:02 pm

"Loose tweets sink fleets"


Lance March 15, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Hate to say but end some of these social media and geo trackers they are a security risk and for time being shut them down.


SFCRET March 15, 2012 at 5:29 pm

We are fighting evil. Osama Bin Laden was evil, the former leader of north korea was evil, Terrorists are evil, Taliban is evil, Hitler was evil, the leader of Iran is evil, Saddam
was evil, Stalin was evil ,MAO (CHINA) was evil.


Josh March 16, 2012 at 1:34 am

What is wrong with you?


Smiller2367 May 4, 2014 at 9:36 pm

wait, what in gods name are you going on about?


Stephen March 15, 2012 at 10:27 pm

wouldn't this provide a useful IP path back to whoever queried the geotags ??
IP address's provide location just as much as GPS !!


Lexington NC September 27, 2013 at 7:51 pm

If the bad guys can get a visual of the target with pretty much any smart phone, from any vantage point, there is a free app that will give them the coordinates, including altitude and the lens direction, of the object in the middle of the frame.

No need to monitor the uploads from GI's when Tali-queda can take a current picture and have current "close enough" data to target with. This is especially true of mobile targets. If took the GI an hour to upload the pic, the line of trucks or choppers or tanks or whatever might well be gone. But if Tali-queda took the picture 5 minutes ago …

In effect, for $39.00 a month, Tali-queda has a $15,000 ranging scope that also makes phone calls and downloads porn — capabilities the US scopes lack.


Bob urling May 5, 2014 at 2:13 am

No IP info embedded but cell phone data packets have unique IDs. If the guy waits until he's in a crowded cafe to upload what can you do – it might take a minute to upload and you can't do a drone strike on a cafe. Next version OS s will probably have more covert ways to find the guy like transmitting while it looks like the phone is shut off etc.


71st Regiment March 16, 2012 at 1:57 am

All good comments. History has shown, never underestimate your enemy. As all the past invaders into Afghanistan have found out, the local tribes are serious warriors and from Alexander to the present, they are extremely adapt at fighting each new enemy.
The terrain and time are on there side. They may to us look odd in their clothes and their habits, but in the past they where able to build almost perfect copies ot the British Enfield Rifle, so to with today's modern technology, they can get any type of cell phone, smart phones and all the rest and find ways to use them against us. What they have and what our troops have where probaly made in the same factory in the Peoples Republic of China. Our side needs to put our technology into a stealth mode.


blight_ March 16, 2012 at 9:59 am

True, but the modern Khyber Pass copies of AKM's et al tend to be indifferent at best. However, you don't need a good gun to shoot a farmer in the middle of the night.


Myron March 16, 2012 at 2:28 am

Okay!!!! I never knew about this thing. Thanks


Gunner March 17, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Not only is this true but even if you disable it on your phone some apps like Google can reactivate it without your knowledge.
It's a constant effort to keep these apps from using the built in GPS in the program.


blight_ March 18, 2012 at 7:34 pm

There you have it. Scrub the metadata on a computer before you post. Posting on a function-crippled mobile is a recipe for information security snafu.


JJMurray March 16, 2012 at 7:41 am

You know for a generation that is supposed to be so computer savvy because they were raised with computers, we time and time again see just how dumb they really are. Geo-tagging has been known about for several years and they're still uploading pictures with this onto the internet. There should be no surprise that geo-tagging exists, just surprise at how foolish some of our folks can be.


Mastro March 16, 2012 at 9:37 am

The soldier who posted the photo should be peeling potatoes in Greenland.

I hope the military actually learns from this- I'm more worried about our satellites being hacked –

Of course- if history tells us anything- they will be SHOCKED if that happens.


Lexington NC September 27, 2013 at 8:02 pm

The UAV's are proving to have vulnerabilities that a few hundred dollars of ECM can defeat.

When someone with access to huge piles of cash goes up against a guy who is desperately fighting for the things he loves … my money is on the guy who is desperate.

How long before robo-dog is taught to bite the hand that feeds it? The guy in the rags will blast the legs off one … and salvage the electronics. Even if it's booby trapped, he'l eventually salvage the whole kit, pass it a long to someone who can make sense of it and defeat it and turn robo-pooches against their former owners.

Even if the pooch isn't armed, it'd sure be a bummer to see it happily trotting off with the replenishment food & ammo just before things got really serious.

My point? Don't rely on the technology … it's the icing. Know what to do if every bit of it takes a shit at a really inopportune moment.


Johnny March 16, 2012 at 10:23 am

They can turn it off


tom mccoy March 16, 2012 at 10:49 am

Wait til they figure out they can do that to our PCs? Over and Out.


SJVGIRL August 4, 2012 at 9:03 am

They have known how to do that better than we do for years. It is their job, sad and scary, however it is true.


Jack Luz March 16, 2012 at 11:51 am

This reminds me of Murphy"s Law: If the enemy is in range, SO ARE YOU!


JohnWayne March 16, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Next news Airforce tagged with QR codes, new mortars read them.


anthony March 17, 2012 at 8:00 am

All batteries operated aparatus should be a void in or near a war zone or borders!!Or when batt. are empty deliver them in at central post!Knowing the enemie can make use of the chemicals as batt.keep a eye on it like youre weapon..


blight_ March 17, 2012 at 9:42 am

What, you think Iraqis can't get their hands on lithium ion batteries and crack the open for an uncontrolled hydrogen gas/Lithium hydroxide reaction? As a people, they weren't technologically unsophsticated. It's probably why America took so long to subjugate them. Warrior race is nice and all, but when you have stockpiles of HE and enough mechanical junk lying around to McGyver detonators out of cell phones, garage door openers and mechanical timers…


Thunder350 March 18, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Turning the Geo-Tag option off in the camera settings is too hard apparently… Takes two steps..

In the camera just hit "settings" and uncheck "Geo-tag photos" problem solved.


GioCv April 7, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Tecnology is not for all . Like in plague control , people say , I can't accept this regulation, thah is not important , don't care about , nothing will happing , then , they sick . It's the same with iphones since has gps technology . This apliances will be prohibited in all militar forces in the world . And the bad wars too.


المشوارالصعب August 22, 2012 at 11:55 pm

الله اكبر


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Ryan March 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm


What if a cell is left in airplane mode? Most smartphones have this feature. Would that stop the gps tag.

I think Anon is on the point though, this is a discipline issue.


blight_ March 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Nope, the problem is that their privacy settings are wide open.


blight_ March 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I think airplane mode just stops the cellular antenna but not the Location Services.


Jeff March 15, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Or they could be getting friend requests from some hot chick with awesome boobs that they've never actually met in person. I get friend requests like that on occasion.


notasblindasyou March 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm

The problems is that active duty soldiers have contraband, ie property not provided by their employers for field use. If they had no cell phones.

Or if the bases blocked signals, as if they couldn't order them to cease and desist, no images from active war-zones would ever make it out.


notasblindasyou March 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm

The US all voluntary military force is not known for its individual soldier's intelligence. During WW2, and Korea at least, all communication was controlled by the chain of command. Now my friend on a deployed sub can receive emails, and post pics of his shore leave all over the world.

I would say no devices on base not approved by signals intelligence staff. Period.


Lance March 15, 2012 at 11:52 pm

hate to say it some rights where suspended in WW2 if we fought it the way we do now we would have lost the war. the Media is part of the problem not the helper they claim.


Josh March 16, 2012 at 1:30 am

SFCRET, you really are making a habit of posting stupid things aren't you?


shawn1999 March 16, 2012 at 9:33 am

While sitting on the plane, 1) disable Geo tagging 2) disable all GPS


blight_ March 16, 2012 at 9:51 am

It's necessary for troops to take it seriously. Real world examples help.


UAVgeek March 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm

Why not pull the jpg location information? You can get it directly off the photo. That way you can confirm that the geotagging is indeed off.


UAVgeek March 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Like Executive order 9066?


blight_ March 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm

And to boot German and Italian immigrants weren't interned (despite the Europe first strategy). Then again, that strange incident in Hawaii where Haiwaiians seemed to be helping an IJN flier undoubtedly stoked paranoia.


blight_ March 18, 2012 at 7:33 pm

In general, anything you post can be particularly insightful to an enemy. For instance, if you pose behind the wire with enough reference points in the picture, an insurgent can make a guess at where everything lies; even without geotags to help out.

I didn't realize the new jpeg standards had geotag info. I thought the meta-data only had stuff such as the type of camera, make/model/ISO and the like. Hrm.


Riceball March 19, 2012 at 12:39 pm

The insurgents don't even that, all they need are some sharp eyes and ears and simply watch our comings and goings. This is what was basically done in Somalia, the clans there had lookouts parked out in front of the airbase that TF Ranger operated out of and they'd radio or call whenever helos lifted off or vehicles drove out of the gates, they'd relay their heading, numbers, composition, and anything else deemed relevant and/or useful. This is all without Google Earth, geotagging, leaks or anything more sophisticated than a 2 way radio or a cell phone.


blight_ March 20, 2012 at 10:53 pm

It's easier to have an app that just pushes photos on auto pilot than to inspect the meta-data attached to every image.


Mavrick March 26, 2014 at 3:03 am

Heck yeah this is exlctay what I needed.


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