Surveillance, drones, and deception at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference

The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference is like no conference you've ever seen.

Most industry conferences are full of PR folk desperately trying to get the media to cover their products. Most industry conferences encourage photography. Most industry conferences are attended by companies who would love for anybody, customer or media, to visit their website and take a look around.

The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference is not like most industry conferences.

Special Ops have, since September 11th, expanded in both scope and budget. Just over the past year, the Obama administration deployed Special Ops forces to 15 more countries than the year before, up to 75, including Yemen, Central Asia, and East Africa. According to this Washington Post piece, Special Ops personnel find the Obama administration much more encouraging and accessible than the Bush administration.

More to the point, Obama increased the Special Ops budget by 5.7%, up to $6.3 billion, and asked for a further $3.5 billion in contingency spending.

So this year's SOFIC, reports AOL News, is much more robust than previous years. The convention, for the first time, allowed media to take photographs in the actual conference hall. Of course, there are still various limitations: Media must have permission from each individual company to photograph its booth, and special ops personnel "below the rank of major or master sergeant are allowed to be photographed only from the side ('to avoid both eyes and bridge of the nose') and cannot be identified by name."

Still, the reports from SOFIC are illuminating, if only to see some of the equipment with which this "secret war" is being fought. There's a $28,000 replica of a secret chemical weapons lab, for example, fronting as a hookah shop, for training. "Walk through a curtain to the back and you've entered another world: a fully functioning lab capable of producing mustard gas."

SOFIC is full of weaponry, from traditional knives and guns to fake roadside bombs, unmanned flying drones, and, notably, surveillance gear. Every possible object that could house a camera seems to, in fact, house a camera, including stuffed Garfield dolls and seeming organic detritus like tree branches.

The most interesting, to me anyway, is an unmanned drone from the Air Force Research Laboratory. It's built and colored to look like a real bird, and the AFRL is hopeful that eventually it'll be able to recharge itself by perching on electrical wires. How cool is that?

Many of the booths refused to go into too much detail on products not on display. In fact, several of the companies do not even have publicly accessible websites, but password-protected catalogs instead, an ethos perfectly contrary to other conventions like CES and E3. But it also seems much more interesting--and potentially dangerous--than the tech conventions to which I've gone.

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