Tag Archives: geo-location of surveillance targets

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

Surgically Implanted Explosive Devices and Drone Strikes

The documents, provided to the Guardian by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times, discuss how a joint US, UK and Australian programme codenamed Overhead supported the strike in Yemen in 2012….

British officials and ministers follow a strict policy of refusing to confirm or deny any support to the targeted killing programme, and evidence has been so scant that legal challenges have been launched on the basis of single paragraphs in news stories.

The new documents include a regular series of newsletters – titled Comet News – which are used to update GCHQ personnel on the work of Overhead, an operation based on satellite, radio and some phone collection of intelligence. Overhead began as a US operation but has operated for decades as a partnership with GCHQ and, more recently, Australian intelligence.

The GCHQ memos, which span a two-year period, set out how Yemen became a surveillance priority for Overhead in 2010, in part at the urging of the NSA, shortly after the failed 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underpants on a transatlantic flight.  Ten months later a sophisticated plot to smuggle explosives on to aircraft concealed in printer cartridges was foiled at East Midlands airport. Both plots were the work of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot.

One Comet News update reveals how Overhead’s surveillance networks supported an air strike in Yemen that killed two men on 30 March 2012. The men are both described as AQAP members.  In the memo, one of the dead men is identified as Khalid Usama – who has never before been publicly named – a “doctor who pioneered using surgically implanted explosives”. The other is not identified…

US officials confirmed to Reuters in 2012 that there had been a single drone strike in Yemen on 30 March of that year. According to a database of drone strikes maintained by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the only incident in Yemen on that date targeted AQAP militants, causing between six and nine civilian casualties, including six children wounded by shrapnel.  Asked whether the strike described in the GCHQ documents was the same one as recorded in the Bureau’s database, GCHQ declined to comment.

The incident is one of more than 500 covert drone strikes and other attacks launched by the CIA and US special forces since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – which are not internationally recognised battlefields.  The GCHQ documents also suggest the UK was working to build similar location-tracking capabilities in Pakistan, the country that has seen the majority of covert strikes, to support military operations “in-theatre”.

A June 2009 document indicates that GCHQ appeared to accept the expanded US definition of combat zones, referring to the agency’s ability to provide “tactical and strategic SIGINT [signals intelligence] support to military operations in-theatre, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, but increasingly Pakistan”. The document adds that in Pakistan, “new requirements are yet to be confirmed, but are both imminent and high priority”….

By this point NSA and GCHQ staff working within the UK had already prioritised surveillance of Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the majority of US covert drone strikes have been carried out. A 2008 memo lists surveillance of two specific sites and an overview of satellite-phone communications of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in which nearly all Pakistan drone strikes have taken place, among its key projects.

British intelligence-gathering in Pakistan is likely to have taken place for a number of reasons, not least because UK troops in Afghanistan were based in Helmand, on the Pakistani border.One of the teams involved in the geo-location of surveillance targets was codenamed “Widowmaker”, whose task was to “discover communications intelligence gaps in support of the global war on terror”, a note explains.

Illustrating the close links between the UK, US and Australian intelligence services, Widowmaker personnel are based at Menwith Hill RAF base in Yorkshire, in the north of England, in Denver, Colorado, and in Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Other Snowden documents discuss the difficult legal issues raised by intelligence sharing with the US….The UK has faced previous legal challenges over the issue. In 2012, the family of a tribal elder killed in Pakistan, Noor Khan, launched a court case in England in which barristers claimed GCHQ agents who shared targeting intelligence for covert strikes could be “accessory to murder”. Judges twice refused to rule on the issue on the grounds it could harm the UK’s international relations.

Excerpts from Alice Ross and James Ball,  GCHQ documents raise fresh questions over UK complicity in US drone strikes,  Guardian, June 24, 2015