from the if-you-like-spying,-you-should-like-being-spied-on-right? dept
In recent months, a lot of attention has been paid to private companies who assist governments with surveillance. Most of this has been focused on companies like Clearview (a company that scrapes the public web for data to sell to its customers) and NSO Group (an Israeli company that sells powerful cell phone exploits to a variety of human rights abusers). Other reports have focused on data brokers who use info harvested from phone apps to provide location data to US law enforcement, allowing them to circumvent the protections erected by the Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision.
What’s been exposed by security researchers and investigative journalists is only the tip of the iceberg. Governments have a hunger for data and a desire to convert the ubiquity of smartphones into actionable intel.
And that’s where things get even more sketchy. We assume our respective governments will respect rights and engage in good faith dealings with companies offering unfettered access to devices and data.
Our assumptions are erroneous. Governments, for the most part, don’t care about the citizens they serve. And they sure as hell don’t care about people located beyond their borders — people they assume have no natural rights who can be targeted with a minimum of discretion and oversight.
More evidence of corporate America’s and the US government’s unwillingness to give a shit about the negative side effects of unfettered domestic surveillance has arrived courtesy of Sam Biddle and Jack Poulson of The Intercept.
A company with a nonexistent web footprint is promising the US government new means of warrantless surveillance — and it’s doing so by leveraging location data harvested from any source possible. There’s a new war underway and, despite the US’s lack of direct involvement, a private company is selling the US government on tech that will allow it to monitor the war via location data purchased from Twitter.
According to Brendon Clark of Anomaly Six — or “A6” — the combination of its cellphone location-tracking technology with the social media surveillance provided by Zignal Labs would permit the U.S. government to effortlessly spy on Russian forces as they amassed along the Ukrainian border, or similarly track Chinese nuclear submarines.
Twitter may have made efforts to exclude government agencies from directly accessing its data firehose but it isn’t quite as proactive when it comes to private companies who sell this data to government agencies. Moderating content is impossible. Moderating firehose access isn’t easy either, especially when third parties aren’t honest about what they’re doing with this data.
The twist in this case is how Anomaly Six demonstrated its social media-leveraging prowess: it turned secretive US government employees into targets.
To prove that the technology worked, Clark pointed A6’s powers inward, spying on the National Security Agency and CIA, using their own cellphones against them.
Do you want to know more about Anomaly Six? Good luck. The only thing on its website is an email address — one linking to an account that presumably ignores pesky questions from journalists and is only responsive to email addresses linked to upper levels of federal agencies.
At best, Anomaly Six appears to be another option for location data that allows the government (federal, local) to dodge the warrant requirement enacted by the Supreme Court. At worst, it’s the interceptor of multiple firehoses that allow government agencies to convert social media use into real-time tracking of citizens’ movements and activities.
Social media services are the attack vector, as a recording obtained by The Intercept points out.
According to audiovisual recordings of an A6 presentation reviewed by The Intercept and Tech Inquiry, the firm claims that it can track roughly 3 billion devices in real time, equivalent to a fifth of the world’s population. The staggering surveillance capacity was cited during a pitch to provide A6’s phone-tracking capabilities to Zignal Labs, a social media monitoring firm that leverages its access to Twitter’s rarely granted “firehose” data stream to sift through hundreds of millions of tweets per day without restriction.
Laws and court precedent limit what the government can do. Anomaly Six asks why be limited by laws and precedent? Just get what you want from third parties, act on the intel, and rest assured that the gray area that stands between citizens and the government will almost always result in favorable rulings for government investigators.
The tools provided by this company, which apparently has access to the Twitter firehose, allow clients to drop a dragnet on worldwide Twitter usage, and track relationships between Twitter accounts, utilizing the location data to see what other accounts were in the area and who targeted users interacted with.
Not only is this company apparently circumventing restrictions on US law enforcement, it’s allegedly violating agreements private companies like A6 make when purchasing firehose access from Twitter.
The source also asserted that Zignal Labs had willfully deceived Twitter by withholding the broader military and corporate surveillance use cases of its firehose access.
As the Supreme Court has noted in decisions related to the Fourth Amendment and the “reasonable” expectation of privacy, sharing something with a private company is not the same thing as approving of carte blanche access by government agencies. Anomaly Six is operating outside of Fourth Amendment protections and citizens’ expectations about how their data will be handled. Sooner or later, this is going to cost the government some convictions, if not actual money. But, for now, it’s just (government) business as usual — business the government apparently feels comfortable conducting even when its contractor has demonstrated not even the most secretive federal agencies are beyond its reach.