"We found that your app contains content that many audiences would find objectionable," Apple wrote Josh Begley in August of 2012. The NYU grad student had designed an iPhone app that would send push notifications after a drone strike killed people overseas, and this was his third rejection notice from Apple. The first two were on technical grounds. The third, not so much.
Begley’s objectionable app, Drone+, pulled data from reputable news stories and a publicly available database at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London to create a simple Google fusion map of drone strikes. It also alerted you, both by push notifications and a text message field, when those strikes occurred. Begley’s app isn’t the only attempt to visualize drone data on a mass scale, though it’s one of the few—Pitch Interactive, for example, has developed an interactive timeline of drone strikes and their human impact.
Nevertheless, Begley is going for his fourth Apple app submission this summer. And if that fails, he hopes to put out an Android version by August. Ultimately, Begley hopes the app will track news about drone strikes in an accessible way, as well as foster discussion about metadata—a term we’ve heard batted around quite a lot in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA leak.
"We hear about drones in the news like this hot topic, this meme almost," Begley says. And yet, he adds, the way the NSA targets people to wiretap is similar to how the U.S. targets most of its drone strikes. "In many instances the CIA doesn’t even know who we’re killing. It’s this idea of targeting a drone strike on a group of people you don’t know but who look like they’re up to no good," Begley says.
While revelations about the NSA’s PRISM program didn’t exist when Begley first started developing the app, he’s now hoping that the tool will help link discussion about algorithmic surveillance practices to drones. Controversial "signature strikes," for example, target behavioral patterns of suspected terrorist activity, rather than known combatants.
Despite Apple’s claims that his content was objectionable, Begley maintains that his motivations are purely journalistic. "It’s a news story tracking project," Begley told Co.Exist. "It is a reflection of how we report on national security more so than an intervention in national security."
After Apple rejected his app submissions the first three times, Begley tried a different tack. He quickly gained notoriety by tweeting historical drone attacks from the Twitter account @dronestream, then updated the account to tweet strikes in real time. An example tweet: "On Sunday, a U.S. drone fired missiles at a car, killing Hassan, his brother, and three others (Yemen)"
Begley also started building a database of drone strikes, filling in fields with as much information about the people killed as possible. By accessing Begley’s API, you can look up the number of people killed in a particular drone strike, as well as how many were reported as civilians—and children.
Five months later, the @dronestream account wrapped as Begley finished up his thesis project at NYU. And regardless of Apple’s sanction, Begley’s app has still been nominated—and is now a finalist—in the INDEX design awards for 2013. Adam von Haffner Paulsen, Index’s news director, says that Begley is a pioneer: "He created such an amount of attention such a stir, maybe someone somewhere will create an app that does what he wants it to do. It’s about transparency. There’s a Danish expression saying, 'It’s a drop that made the glass overflow.' Maybe he started the wave, and someone else will finish." That the app isn’t actually available doesn’t matter, says Paulsen. It’s the idea that’s been nominated. But Begley would still like to find a way to put it in people’s hands.
"If the core reason for rejection of the app is one of crude or objectionable content, the only thing that could change is that Apple changes its opinion on what is crude or objectionable," Begley said. "Let them assert that they made the wrong judgment. I’d love to give them a chance to be like, 'Oh, this is just a news thing.'"
After all, it’s not like Begley is scraping data from classified sources. He’s not sure what Apple could find objectionable about his minimalist map with pushpins—especially because the company already permits a game that allows you to fly drones over and blow up targets in a post-apocalyptic future New York.