Mass Surveillance and No NSA. It Happens!

As my readers must know, one of my many problems with The Snowden Leak Keepers is the extent to which they largely reduce a gigantic surveillance problem involving 16 government agencies, hundreds of contract companies,  a gang of corporate co-conspirators, hundreds of local police forces etc, down to one bad agency. The Leak Keepers even seem hard-pressed to implicate Google’s rubbery arm in the twisting the NSA ‘s been giving it for years, for reasons that surely must owe to something vastly more 11 dimensional chessy than the increasingly friendly reception various Leak Keepers are getting from multiple corporate sectors and beneficent oligarchs. Therefore, I suppose I am duty-bound to occasionally depart from critiquing the painstakingly dumbed-down Leak Keeper narrative and instead demonstrate by example how misplaced its narrow focus on the NSA is.

Here’s a timely example, posted yesterday evening on Ars Technica:

At last month’s International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in Philadelphia, LexisNexis showed off a new tool it will bundle with its research service for law enforcement agencies—one that will help them “stake out” social media as part of their criminal investigations.

Called Social Media Monitor, the cloud-based service will watch social networks for comments and activities that might offer clues to crimes in the physical world. With direct connections into a variety of social media services’ feeds, it will help police plow through Twitter and Facebook in search of evidence that could lead to arrests.

Social Media Monitor is provided by an Atlanta firm called Digital Stakeout [which]  pulls data and metadata directly from Twitter’s “firehose,” as well historical data from Twitter. The system taps into Facebook posts and comments, Google+ and YouTube, Instagram, and other social media “big data” feeds. It performs a variety of rules-based processing on the data live from the source—including some proprietary natural language analytics [and] . . .includes sentiment analysis features to monitor the general mood of postings and pick up potential threats of violence.

Social Media Monitor, the article goes on, will complement Lexis Nexis’ Accurint for Law Enforcement  which is –

a sort of LinkedIn for law enforcement agents that provides a way to network and identify people with expertise at other levels of law enforcement. It also allows for access to public records about individuals and businesses that law enforcement can use to verify identities, locate suspects and their assets, and discover links between people that may not show up on their Facebook page.

Nothing surprising here, right? But don’t ho-hum me if you’re waiting breathlessly for the next Snowden scoop in which we’ll learn — lemme guess — that the NSA scoops up web and phone data somewhere and doesn’t spare foreign elites.  This Ars Technica story tells us quite a lot more, don’t you think? Here’s what’s notable:

1. Look Ma, no NSA!!!

Look who’s driving here, it’s the corporate sector.  There’s no evidence any government agency asked Lexis Nexis to produce this service. They saw that cops were using social networks anyway and decided to help.  The end users are not a scary federal agency but scary local militarized police who can be dispatched to an evil tweet-doer’s home in minutes. Assuming this product gets traction, its users will collectively comprise a massive surveillance network, and via Accurint — which is used by “over 4,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies” (source) — they’ll be one big national team working together. We can expect to see more of this so long as the Dept. of Fear money keeps flowing and, indeed, the Ars Technica article mentions three competitors, including creepy, CIA-funded Palantir, now branching out into law enforcement products.

2. No national security interest gunking up the story.

Those inclined to think ‘ordinary Americans’ are uniquely important in the Snowden case should note that ordinary Americans are, so far, this product’s only targets. There is no national security alibi, though the service does promise upticks in NatSec-minded Muslim-harassing. It will also likely boost anti-drug enforcement efforts as well, and be quite handy in managing various rabble rousers in times of social unrest.  Among other things, identifying marks for concocted plots and drug stings is likely to get easier.  That ‘sentiment analysis’ stuff has all kinds of potential.

3. The use of open source intelligence.

As far as I can tell, no warrants or subpoenas are needed for any of this. Digital Stakeout and Lexis Nexis are pulling from data that people willfully make public via social networking and from Accurint’s 37 billion public records.

This is what they call Open Source Intelligence in the biz and all sorts of shady characters are showing a big interest in it. No wonder: since it mines publicly available information, open source intelligence occupies a kind of Fourth Amendment gray zone; it discloses secrets through automated analysis. If you have an unlimited storage capacity for data, and the processing power to analyze it, you theoretically can finger people for arrest or intimidation long before they resort to communication methods requiring warrants.  If indeed this is the future of signals intelligence, things like PRISM are likely to seem horribly hamfisted and antiquated in a few years, as will any policy changes they inspire if open source intelligence is not factored in.

4. Corporate complicity

That Digital Stakeout uses data from Twitter,  Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Instagram should raise both eyebrows and questions. Perhaps Digital Stakeout is simply using public APIs, feeds and scrapes, with no involvement from these companies at all. I get that social network posts are public anyway, but it matters if these companies are making it easier for the surveillance apparatus to hoover them up and analyze them. Considering that Twitter has been heralded by privacy enthusiasts for opting out of PRISM and for being more protective of user data, it’s interesting that the company has provided both Data Stakeout and a competitor, BrightPlanet, with access to its hard-to-get and highly prized ‘firehose‘.

It certainly seems there’s a lot more to wring one’s hands over here than one finds in Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Yet this is just one of tens of articles along these lines that get published every month — authored by uncelebrated scribes like AT’s Sean Gallagher — disclosing surveillance activity that equals or exceeds anything the NSA is doing. In most of these stories, all the damning details come straight from the spies’ own mouths, no heavily redacted leaks required! Our story began this time with Lexis Nexis bragging about its enhancements to the panopticon at a cop convention. Curious readers can find more on the Digital Stakeout blog and from Lexis Nexis’s Accurint sales pitch.

h/t @thomas_lord


Fuck These Google Guys

Oligarchs Approve the NSA Debate. I Guess We’re Winning

A Harbinger of Journalism Saved

Take Your Drip and Stick It

Dr. Rosen and The Snowden Effect

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36 Responses to Mass Surveillance and No NSA. It Happens!

  1. diane says:

    oh fuck, I’m in heaven, you’ve outdone yourself honey!


  2. diane says:

    Now that the subject of ‘cops’ has come up, most need to peruse u r b a n s h i e l d [. o r g] (in detail, …spend some time there), and consider what the logical implications of such a highly ‘INTERNATIONALLY’ [Belgiium and US cops?] armed and parasitic tapeworm might be.

    • Tarzie says:

      Thanks for the tip. Tapeworm is a good metaphor for all of it.

      • diane says:

        lamprey works too.

        (you are so very welcome for that tip!)

      • diane says:

        Uggh, I just revisited there, the site has been significantly changed (from less than a year ago) and looks like it’s no longer very easy to access the supporters page which referenced, on one concise page, huge multinational corporations such as oracle; local, state, federal and foreign ‘governments,’ such as Belgium, participating in ‘training’ and supplying urban US cops in stomping down the ‘riff raff’.

        Upon a quick search, this (gag worthy site/url (a w w w , h t t p site): shows cut and paste traces of what I was referring to, such as this post (“Posted: 2/9/2011 1:48:29 PM”):

        Urban Shield is not an offbeat small competition. In 2010 it took place on GM NUMMI plant [now Tesla’s Fremont, CA plant (unless there’s a NUMMI plant I’m not aware of in the Bay Area) – diane], which is basically a small city, with all the infrastructure that a city has. The 48-hour non-stop competition tested each team as they responded to back-to-back counter-terror scenarios. It is considered the most realistic counter-terror competition in the world, and is held as the model for all others.

        “Thanks to the Alameda County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office, I was privileged to observe Urban Shield 2009.Twenty-seven SWAT teams, mostly from California but also from as far away as Boston and even France, were tested for 48-plus continuous hours by a series of 25 real-world, force-on-force scenarios. Each scenario designed to test officers’ tactical skills and teamwork to the limit was scored and timed, with points deducted for mistakes.

        This alone makes Urban Shield the most daunting, pressure filled tactical training exercise in existence.
        “Already one of the top SWAT exercises in the world, Urban Shield has become a national template to evaluate regional public safety preparedness” …

        Participants in 2010 included:

        95th Civil Support Team, Weapons of Mass Destruction, California Army National Guard, Amtrak
        Amtrak Police Department, Camp Parks Reserve Forces Training Area, Camp Parks Fire Department, Camp Parks Police Department, Federal Air Marshal Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Federal Bureau of Prisons, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory Police Department, NASA AMES Research Center, National Guard, 95th Civil Support Team (WMD), Stanford Linear Accelerator Facility, Transportation Security Administration, United States Marine Corp Band, United States Marine Corp Silent Drill Team, United States Maritime Administration Division of Pacific Operators, United States Coast Guard, United States Marshals Service, United States Navy, United States Secret Service

        Belgium, Canada, Vancouver Police Department, Croatia, Kingdom of Bahrain, Kingdom of Jordan, Singapore National Police Force, State of Israel National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), State of Israel National EMS System, Magen David Adom, State of Israel National Police, State of Qatar, United Arab Emirates

        I dont want to take the necessary space to list all the US state and local LE agencies.

        That “Participants” (my bolding above) paste was directly from a previously active u r b a n s h i e l d u r l, I remember it quite well.

        (And for any lurking fool who doesn’t get the enormity of what this means, in a nutshell: these are municipal, LOCAL, cops who are being trained to jack boot the populace.)

      • diane says:

        (Sorry, much need clarification to my last comment: The ‘local cops’ were trained to Jack Boot Minorities, centuries ago, … now the ante has been upped to the entirety of those who rely on: an already paid for government safety net; a job; or a small ‘business,’ order to survive.)

  3. rabidrot says:

    All of this will go nicely with the IARPA’s Janus project:

    The United States intelligence community’s research arm is set to launch a program that will thoroughly broaden the capabilities of biometric facial recognition software in order to establish an individual’s identity.

    The Janus program of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) will begin in April 2014 in an effort to “radically expand the range of conditions under which automated face recognition can establish identity,” according to documents released by the agency over the weekend.

    Janus “seeks to improve face recognition performance using representations developed from real-world video and images instead of from calibrated and constrained collections. During daily activities, people laugh, smile, frown, yawn and morph their faces into a broad variety of expressions. For each face, these expressions are formed from unique skeletal and musculature features that are similar through one’s lifetime. Janus representations will exploit the full morphological dynamics of the face to enable better matching and faster retrieval.”

      • I’ve already been a victim of the digital license plate scan technology deployed by Homeland Security through the State and local police networks (In Tennessee, on I-81), and now I understand why the cops that detained me for taking photos of “critical infrastructure (oil refineries) took a photo.

        It specifically was not a mug shot, because I was not under arrest, just detained for questioning.

        Homeland Security and FBI investigators subsequently came to my house to question me further.

        Now I know why – and this was over 5 years ago.

        This surveillance state has metastasized without much, if any, pushback and a lot of public support.

  4. rabidrot says:

    I didn’t, thanks. Reminds me of when Ohio was caught using a facial recognition database without telling anyone.

    It all makes me want to retreat, from the web at the very least. But those cameras … ugh, they’re multiplying fast. I personally censor, online and IRL, more and more, I’ve noticed. Anything you say or do can be used against you….

    • Tarzie says:

      Yeah. The deeper I go into this the more I think the only recourse is reduce one’s footprint, if not withdraw altogether.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        I think the only way we can not live in a surveillance state is for a lot of current uses of the Internet to cease entirely or at least radically change character. Right now it acts for many people like a big digital confessional and personal activity self-reporting facility. Can our society step back from seeking that kind of ego-gratification?

      • Tarzie says:

        Right now it acts for many people like a big digital confessional and personal activity self-reporting facility… Can our society step back from seeking that kind of ego-gratification?

        Good question. There would have to be some offsets in the non-internet sphere, I think. The egotism is certainly part of it, but I think people are also looking for community online. The real world clearly isn’t delivering the goods for a lot of people, and the internet coupled with time constraints discourages people from putting in the work to derive satisfaction by other means.

  5. Thomas Lord says:

    Hey I just realized something:

    The descriptions of the LexisNexis service and the underlying Digital Stakeout service both imply that not just anyone is allowed to sign up.

    Is that really the case or is anyone’s money green here? Can anyone use these tools or only those law enforcement agencies (and others?) approved by these firms?

    What governs who these firms allow to use these services? Is it legislative law or is it de facto law in the form of corporate policy?

    Is it now a private corporate entity making critical decisions about who among us is on which side of the wall, so to speak?

    • Tarzie says:

      Is that really the case or is anyone’s money green here? Can anyone use these tools or only those law enforcement agencies (and others?) approved by these firms?

      That’s a good question. If I had to pull an answer out of my ass, I’d say the ticket in is probably official access to the underlying law enforcement databases. One probably has to show some kind of law enforcement credentials to be part of Accurint.

      The open source data mining is probably available to all comers in different packaging, since that has all kinds of commercial utility.

      • newcrownvic says:

        The Accurint application process is much more demanding than the other products they offer but any company can apply. Application process still pretty simple though: maybe 50 page application, week waiting period for approval, onsite inspection. LexisNexis does the application process in house and decides who qualifies for access. I worked for a small company a few years back that applied and got approved for accurint.

        For us it was expensive but for most companies it wouldn’t even rate, it was somewhere in the $1500-2500/month range. And I also remember that there was one or two search fields that only law-enforcement could use. There are other database companies out there that do this as well but LN is in a league of their own. People were always curious how we got in touch with them, the most memorable was this one guy who laughed when I called one of his cellphones and said, “My wife doesn’t even have this number, how did you get it?”

  6. rabidrot says:

    By the way, thank you for all the excellent work you’ve put into the NSA leaks and such. It’s been invaluable, I feel. I wish more would question the methodology and interests involved in the leaks. And as you point out here, it goes far beyond the NSA. Anyway, thank you.

  7. Jeff Nguyen says:

    While the NSA plays the role of Cinderella, the belle of the ball, with her handsome escort, Greenwald, don’t count out the ugly step sister, the CIA. For as much as the NSA is in the news, it’s notable what is missing…namely, accounts of the agency’s footprints in Syria, Libya, et al. Surely, COINTELPRO has been revived and given a second life on the domestic front.

    For me, when Greenwald went left with Snowden instead of right with Manning, my radar went up. Apparently, never the twain shall meet. And what about Hammond, how come no love for him from Greenwald and the Company?

    • Tarzie says:

      And what about Hammond, how come no love for him from Greenwald and the Company?

      Greenwald made some noises today about Hammond, whose sentencing is tomorrow. He hasn’t written him or Barrett Brown off entirely, I think because, if supported judiciously, they help his brand right now in a way that Manning ceased to, especially since Greenwald had accumulated a surplus of Manning capital before he threw her under the bus. People still don’t believe what he did. It’s like it never happened. They point to his trophy case the same way he does. On the way to building his billionaire funded career, it behooves him to keep one foot in the world of ostensibly genuine dissidents like Brown, Hammond and the PayPal 14 for credibility’s sake and, fortunately for him, expectations are such with that crowd that a little goes a long way.

      As to the CIA, I’m sure all the various elements of the Intelligence Community are quite happy with how this is going so far. Nary a mention for any of them. The DEA has featured in a couple large surveillance-related scandals — including one that showed them illegally using NSA data — and there’s been barely a peep. These stories come and go but the NSA story, no matter how predictable and boring, continues to stick, because, y’know, The Snowden Effect, and the Leak Keepers’ super duper deft handling of the news cycle.

      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        I missed Greenwald’s mention of Hammond but I stopped reading him since he aligned himself with Snowden.

        We (rhetorical we) were naive to think that this assembling of the Homeland Security apparatus was not intended for the homeland. Corporations are amoral entities and when the Feds started handing out the contracts post 9/11 and in the Iraq Green Zone, it doesn’t take a great deal of cognitive activity to visualize the number of grubby hands that reached out to get their piece of the taxpayer pie.

        Thanks for helping us keep our eyes on the bouncing ball.

  8. I found this perspective by the Nowtopian to get it exactly right:

    “But I’ve been surprised that the response to the NSA gathering everyone’s phone calls and emails has been so narrowly focused on the ostensible violation of personal privacy. The real issue is not the privacy of your personal communication. The NSA program is the government’s attempt to get a handle on networked uprisings, not so they can pre-empt them (though of course they’d like to), but to respond them as quickly as possible as they unfold. The goal of gathering all this meta-data is to be able to identify where the “hubs” are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears.”

    • Tarzie says:

      Yeah, I read that. I think that Nowtopian has made a highly credible assertion without demonstrating it. Traditional lefties always seem to be aiming for what-it’s-really-about type explanations, frequently placing themselves and the great threat they pose to the powers that be somewhere near center stage. Of course the surveillance apparatus is going to be deployed to squash dissent and Newtopian does a good job of sketching how it works. But the surveillance apparatus has lots of other purposes too, not the least of which is simply the transfer of public monies to private coffers. In the present case I think everything is just as it seems on the surface: Lexis Nexis saw a business opportunity in the use to which cops were putting social networks anyway. The cops will use Lexis Nexis’s refinements to simply do their jobs, which include, but are not limited to, squashing dissent.

      I definitely agree with Nowtopian’s objection to the anodyne focus of Greenwald and others on ‘privacy’ which is so trivializing as to be offensive. However, Nowtopian’s identification of The One True Purpose is trivializing and simplistic in its own right. The surveillance apparatus is handy for all kinds of jobs, large and small.

  9. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Hammond got 10 years. The big chill is definitely in effect…Judge mentioned the need to respect the rule of law.

  10. Trish says:

    Great post. Every aspect of our lives will be monitored. In the old days at least the serfs could try and make a “run” for it, now when the grid is complete it will be almost impossible. They will be able to track your movements on and off line. I remember reading the unibomber manifesto, and thinking it all sounded so “out there”. Now a lot of what he said would happen, is happening.

    I read the judge’s comment about “no respect for the rule of law”. There is no rule of law. It is selectively enforced, and if you are not part of the club then you are screwed. I feel sorry for Hammond having to spend ten years of his life in prison the system can be very cruel. But unless there is some type of mass awakening, I am not sure how it will change. Sure we can chip away at it, here and there, but so long as we have a system where the “few” have too much power and control over the “many” things will not change that much.

    • Tarzie says:

      Yeah, the Rule of Law is for the little people.

      It is a shame about Hammond. I think people should stop fetishizing these movement-free acts of resistance that only result in the destruction of a young life. I am starting to see the left’s relationship with these martyrs as parasitic.

  11. parink says:

    O/T: Just watched the vimeo of Jay Rosen on your #2 twitter acct. I think it’s safe to say he needs a web redemption.

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