How to Spy on Your Own Country for $1.25 per day

San Francisco-based Premise Data Corp. pays users, many of them in the developing world, to complete basic tasks for small payments. Typical assignments involve snapping photos, filling out surveys or doing other basic data collection or observational reporting such as counting ATMs or reporting on the price of consumer goods like food.

About half of the company’s clients are private businesses seeking commercial information, Premise says. That can involve assignments like gathering market information on the footprint of competitors, scouting locations and other basic, public observational tasks. Premise in recent years has also started working with the U.S. military and foreign governments, marketing the capability of its flexible, global, gig-based workforce to do basic reconnaissance and gauge public opinion.

Premise is one of a growing number of companies that straddle the divide between consumer services and government surveillance and rely on the proliferation of mobile phones as a way to turn billions of devices into sensors that gather open-source information useful to government security services around the world.

Premise launched in 2013,, As of 2019, the company’s marketing materials said it has 600,000 contributors operating in 43 countries, including global hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. According to federal spending records, Premise has received at least $5 million since 2017 on military projects—including from contracts with the Air Force and the Army and as a subcontractor to other defense entities. In one pitch on its technology, prepared in 2019 for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, Premise proposed three potential uses that could be carried out in a way that is “responsive to commander’s information requirements”: gauge the effectiveness of U.S. information operations; scout and map out key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes; and covertly monitor cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square-kilometer area. The presentation said tasks needed to be designed to “safeguard true intent”—meaning contributors wouldn’t necessarily be aware they were participating in a government operation…

 Another Premise document says the company can design “proxy activities” such as counting bus stops, electricity lines or ATMs to provide incentives for contributors to move around as background data is gathered. Data from Wi-Fi networks, cell towers and mobile devices can be valuable to the military for situational awareness, target tracking and other intelligence purposes. There is also tracking potential in having a distributed network of phones acting as sensors, and knowing the signal strength of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points can be useful when trying to jam communications during military operations. Nearby wireless-network names can also help identify where a device is, even if the GPS is off, communications experts say.

Mr. Blackman said gathering open-source data of that nature doesn’t constitute intelligence work. “Such data is available to anyone who has a cellphone,” he said. “It is not unique or secret.” Premise submitted a document last July to the British government describing its capabilities, saying it can capture more than 100 types of metadata from its contributors’ phones and provide them to paying customers—including the phone’s location, type, battery level and installed apps. 

Users of the Premise app aren’t told which entity has contracted with the company for the information they are tasked with gathering. The company’s privacy policy discloses that some clients may be governments and that it may collect certain types of data from the phone, according to a spokesman…Currently the app assigns about five tasks a day to its users in Afghanistan, according to interviews with users there, including taking photos of ATMs, money-exchange shops, supermarkets and hospitals. One user in Afghanistan said he and others there are typically paid 20 Afghani per task, or about 25 cents—income for phone and internet services. A few months ago, some of the tasks on the site struck him as potentially concerning. He said the app posted several tasks of identifying and photographing Shiite mosques in a part of western Kabul populated largely by members of the ethnic Hazara Shiite minority. The neighborhood was attacked several times by Islamic State over the past five years…. Because of the nature and location of the tasks in a hot spot for terrorism, the user said he thought those tasks could involve spying and didn’t take them on.

Excerpt from Byron Tau, App Users Unwittingly Collect Intelligence, WSJ,  June 25, 2010

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