Future Tense

The U.S. Government’s Creepiest Drone and Surveillance Designs

If there were a design competition for creating the creepiest logos and PowerPoint presentations, the U.S. government would surely win.

We’ve seen some unsettling logos from the military before, but leaks of secret surveillance documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed how the government has drawn up yet more ominous illustrations. From the Grim Reaper to Steve Jobs portrayed as Big Brother—the government’s graphic designers know few limits.

Below, I’ve compiled a short list showing some of the “best of the worst” published both pre- and post-Snowden. Some of the presentations and logos used could be seen as largely superficial, detached from any real meaning. However, they may offer a glimpse into collective mindset of certain agencies, reflecting how they internally perceive themselves and their missions.

The bizarre logo for the NSA’s “SHIFTINGSHADOW” surveillance program was depicted in Snowden documents published by Brazilian TV Show Fantastico in September. This spy initiative involves clandestine surveillance of communications in Afghanistan through what is described in the documents as a “foreign access point.” It is not clear what the Grim Reaper is supposed to signify here. Perhaps it is meant to represent how the NSA lurks like a ghost in telecommunications infrastructure, helping identify targets for military strikes. Either way, the ghoulish logo is clearly hideous—and looks like something straight out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.

“Information Awareness Office”
The Pentagon’s Information Awareness Office was established in 2002 to find ways to monitor vast amounts of information in order to track potential terror threats, and it was given this creepy logo to boot. (It can still be viewed in its original glory on an archived version of the DARPA website.) The aim was to achieve “Total Information Awareness” by mining Americans’ communication records, social networks, credit card payments, and other information for suspicious activity. In 2003, the program was defunded by Congress amid a backlash over privacy concerns. But surveillance of this kind still continues in the United States, just under a different name and without the ominous all-seeing eye logo. The Latin inscription—“Scientia Est Potentia”—roughly translates as “knowledge is power.”

“Program Executive Office—Unmanned Aviation & Strike Weapons”
This logo was created for the office that handles the Navy’s drone fleet; it was first publicised in 2012. Here again we see the use of the Grim Reaper, but this time there is no doubt what it is meant to illustrate—death. The role of this Navy unit, according to its website, is to “develop, acquire, and support quality air to ground strike weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, and target systems.” With the Navy recently shelling out about $1.4 billion for a pair of new stealth drones, you’d have thought that it could have commissioned designers to create a graphic that is slightly less crass and sinister. On the flipside, at least it is an accurate overarching representation of the U.S. government’s drone program, which is … well, quite crass and sinister.

“Special Source Operations”
The logo for the NSA’s secretive “Special Source Operations” unit was revealed in documents recently leaked by Snowden. SSO reportedly works in partnership with trusted U.S. phone and Internet providers to gain clandestine access to communications data. Snowden has described SSO as the “crown jewel” of the NSA. It is responsible for handling the PRISM Internet surveillance program, disclosed by the Washington Post and the Guardian in June. The strange image of an eagle flying off with the world strapped to its feet against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes is perhaps intended as a metaphor for what the NSA is doing with global communications infrastructure. That is, seeking to dominate it for U.S. government surveillance.

This PowerPoint slide is taken from a series leaked by Edward Snowden on the NSA’s XKEYSCORE surveillance database. The crudely constructed graphic is one of the clearest illustrations used by the NSA internally to portray what its spies do with the vast troves of data they have access to. The image shows how an NSA analyst can plug in to a large pool of data that is mined from the Internet in order to pull up information about targeted individuals’ Internet activity.

“iPhone Location Services”
This set of three NSA PowerPoint slides was published by Der Spiegel in September as part of a scoop about how the agency can snoop on smartphone data. The bluntly composed slides, marked “top-secret,” depict the NSA referencing George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four while portraying Apple’s Steve Jobs as “Big Brother” and mocking iPhone users as “Zombies.”

The location data stored by iPhone location services appears to have been useful for the NSA in its efforts to conduct its surveillance missions and monitor targets’ movements. These slides indicate how the NSA has brazenly exploited developments in smartphone technology for spying purposes, illustrating why communication tools that implement privacy-by-design are increasingly important in an age of burgeoning digital surveillance.


If history is a guide, no doubt there are other dubious government logos and illustrations yet to be publicly released that would merit inclusion on this list. In the meantime, if you know of any that you think deserve (dis)honorable mention here, feel free to add a suggestion in the comments.