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  • 10.15.10

Inside the Lawsuit That Could Ground Deadly CIA Predator Drones

A new lawsuit alleges that Predator drone targeting software was pirated, and emails obtained by Fast Company suggest the CIA knew it was sub-par.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban haven’t been
able to bring down the CIA’s Predator drones. But a new lawsuit
alleging parts of their targeting software are pirated (and faulty)
could.

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On December 7, 2010, Massachusetts
Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle is expected to issue a decision
on a complicated contract and intellectual property-related lawsuit
that could ground the CIA’s Predator drones.

Intelligent
Integration Systems
(IISi), a small Boston-based software
development firm, alleges that their Geospatial
Toolkit and Extended SQL Toolkit
were pirated by
Massachusetts-based Netezza for use by a government client.
Subsequent evidence and court proceedings revealed that the
“government client” seeking assistance with Predator drones was none other than the Central Intelligence Agency.

IISi is seeking an injunction that would halt the use of their two toolkits by
Netezza for three years. Most importantly, IISi alleges in court
papers that Netezza used a “hack” version of their software with
incomplete targeting functionality in response to rushed CIA
deadlines. As a result, Predator drones could be missing their
targets by as much as 40 feet. (The
National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which assists the Defense
Department with combat and homeland security support, also reportedly
uses the software named in the intellectual property suit.)

According to a 2009 report by the Brookings
Institute, 10 or more civilians die for every terrorist killed by drone
missiles–and the topic of civilian casualties due to
improperly targeted (or simply reckless) drone attacks is
a controversial one
.

Internal emails obtained by Fast Company indicate that both IISi and Netezza were aware of serious flaws in Geospatial, as-is, at the time of the
alleged intellectual property fraud. The exact term used by IISi was
“far from production ready code.” In two emails dated September
16, 2009, IISi CTO Rich Zimmerman complains of “problems with some very
intricate floating point calculations that are causing me to fail a
lot of my regression tests” and that the software was not
“production ready.”

A Netezza email in the public record from October 13, 2009, indicates
that, shortly before the partnership went sour, president Jim Baum
wanted “to help our mutual customer reach his requirements” and
that he (the client) believes that the expertise on his team is
prepared to deal with early release software. He has a previous
generation system so he is able to compare results himself. It is
obviously in our mutual best interest to meet this client’s needs
quickly.” Copious email evidence and court
records
indicate that both IISi and Netezza were well aware the
client was the CIA and the software was to be used in unmanned
drones.

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One report in the British press sums
it up this way
: “IISi alleges that Netezza misled the CIA by
saying that it could deliver the software on its new hardware, to a
tight deadline [ … ] Netezza illegally and hastily reverse-engineered
IISi’s code [ … ] Despite knowing about the miscalculations, the CIA
accepted the software.”

This all goes back to when Netezza and IISi
were former partners in a contract to develop software that would be used,
among other purposes, for unmanned drones. The relationship between
Netezza and IISi soured due to alleged disagreements over the CIA’s (apparently rushed) project deadlines. IISi dropped out of their work developing Predator
software; Netezza continued working with the CIA on the project.

Netezza initially sued IISi over
contract-related issues. IISi then prevailed on core counterclaims
relating to wrongful termination and put forth IP charges against
Netezza. The original complaint by Netezza’s counsels put the
CIA-related information into the public domain; subsequent court
proceedings revealed the specific contours of the unmanned drone
targeting connection.

IISi’s current counterclaim claims that both
the software package used by the CIA and the Netezza
Spatial
product were built using their intellectual property.

IBM recently
announced
that they intend to purchase Netezza for approximately
$1.7 billion. Netezza and IISi began collaborating in 2006, when IISi
began reselling a bundle of Netezza’s data warehousing kit and
Geospatial. Their relationship continued through several
joint software developments
before souring in late 2009.

According to statements made by IISi
CEO Paul Davis, a favorable
ruling
in the injunction would revoke the CIA’s license to use
Geospatial. In real life terms, this would either force the CIA to
ground Predator drones or to break the law in their use if the court
rules in IISi’s favor. It is unknown if the CIA has a third option in
case of a ban on the use of IISI’s toolkit.

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ISi’s lawyers claimed on September 7,
2010 that “Netezza secretly reverse engineered IISI’s Geospatial
product by, inter alia,
modifying the internal installation programs of the product and using
dummy programs to access its binary code [ … ] to create what
Netezza’s own personnel reffered to internally as a “hack”
version of Geospatial that would run, albeit very imperfectly, on
Netezza’s new TwinFin machine [ … ] Netezza then delivered this
“hack” version of Geospatial to a U.S. Government customer (the
Central Intelligence Agency) [ … ] According to Netezza’s records,
the CIA accepted this “hack” of Geospatial on October 23, 2009,
and put it into operation at that time.”

Testimony
given by an IISi executive to the court also indicates that the
Predator targeting software, as initially acquired by Netezza, was
faulty. According to Zimmerman’s deposition, his reaction
upon finding out deadlines for their Netezza co-project for the CIA
would not give enough time to fix software bugs was one of shock.
According
to the deposition
, Zimmerman said “my reaction was one of stun,
amazement that they (CIA) want to kill people with my software that
doesn’t work.” The CTO was also nervous of any possible legal
liability for IISi in case Predator missiles missed their target; in
his words they would not continue participating “without some sort
of terms around that indemnifies us in case that code kills people.”

IISi’s
official statement, as provided by email, is that “the Superior
Court has already ruled that Netezza’s termination of IISi was
wrongful and that Netezza breached the contract. Further, the Court
approved a stipulation under which Netezza may not disclose to IBM
any copies (including any portion thereof) of the IISi Geospatial and
Extended SQL Toolkit products. We believe that Netezza’s denial
that it used our software is false and that it is directly
contradicted by Netezza’s own internal emails to CEO Jim Baum,
which show clearly that Netezza “hacked” our software and
delivered that hacked and defective version to the government.”

So
could IISi’s injunction request shut down Predator drones?
Hypothetically, yes. But given the tone, tenor and urgency of the
CIA’s counterterrorism programs abroad, it is not likely.
Nonetheless, Judge Hinkle has been extremely
receptive
to IISi’s claims. A betting man would guess that some
sort of face-saving resolution involving escrow will be introduced.
But in the meantime, amateur Graham Greenes everywhere can remain
fascinated by how ordinary business lawsuits can end up spilling the
guts on counterterrorism ops.

As of press time, Netezza has not responded to a request for comment.