Tag Archives: government surveillance

How to Detect Humans Under-the-Ground: Surveillance Best

Tunnel-digging in times of conflict has a long history. These days, secret tunnels are used to move weapons and people between Gaza and Egypt, and by Kurdish militia operating on the frontier between Syria and Turkey. But the same principle applies. What happens underground is hard for the enemy to observe. Digging for victory is therefore often a good idea…

That, though, may be about to change. Real-time Subsurface Event Assessment and Detection (RESEAD), a project being undertaken at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, uses novel sensors to make accurate maps of what is happening underground. This will, no doubt, have many civilian applications. But Sandia is principally a weapons lab…The sensors themselves are a mixture of accelerometers, which pick up vibrations, current detectors, which measure the electrical-resistance of rocks and soil, and subsurface radar…

Exactly how RESEAD sensors would be put in place in a zone of active conflict remains to be seen. But the system could certainly be useful for other sorts of security. In particular, America has a problem with tunnels under its border with Mexico being used to smuggle drugs and migrants into the country. RESEAD would be able to detect existing tunnels and nip new ones in the bud. 

Excerpts from Tunnel Vision: How to detect the enemy when they are underground, Economist, June 24, 2021

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

Wikipedia Lawsuit against U.S. NSA

Excerpts from the Lawsuit of Wikipedia against the NSA


The government conducts at least two kinds of surveillance under the The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA).  Under a program called “PRISM,” the government obtains stored and real-time communications directly from U.S. companies—such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Microsoft—that provide communications services to targeted accounts.

This case concerns a second form of surveillance, called Upstream. Upstream surveillance involves the NSA’s seizing and searching the internet communications of U.S. citizens and residents en masse as those communications travel across the internet “backbone” in the United States. The internet backbone is the network of high-capacity cables, switches, and routers that facilitates both domestic and international communication via the internet.The NSA conducts Upstream surveillance by connecting surveillance devices to multiple major internet cables, switches, and routers inside the United States. These access points are controlled by the country’s largest telecommunications providers, including Verizon Communications, Inc. and AT&T, Inc. ….

. With the assistance of telecommunications providers, the NSA intercepts a wide variety of internet communications, including emails, instant messages, webpages, voice calls, and video chats. It copies and reviews substantially all international emails and other “text-based” communications—i.e., those whose content includes searchable text.

More specifically, Upstream surveillance encompasses the following processes, some of which are implemented by telecommunications providers acting at the NSA’s direction:

• Copying. Using surveillance devices installed at key access points, the NSA makes a copy of substantially all international text-based communications—and many domestic ones—flowing across certain high-capacity cables, switches, and routers. The copied traffic includes email, internet-messaging communications, web-browsing content, and search-engine queries.

• Filtering. The NSA attempts to filter out and discard some wholly domestic communications from the stream of internet data, while preserving international communications. The NSA’s filtering out of domestic communications is incomplete, however, for multiple reasons. Among them, the NSA does not eliminate bundles of domestic and international communications that transit the internet backbone together. Nor does it eliminate domestic communications that happen to be routed abroad.

• Content Review. The NSA reviews the copied communications—including their full content—for instances of its search terms. The search terms, called “selectors,” include email addresses, phone numbers, internet protocol (“IP”) addresses, and other identifiers that NSA analysts believe to be associated with foreign intelligence targets. Again, the NSA’s targets are not limited to suspected foreign agents and terrorists, nor are its selectors limited to individual email addresses. The NSA may monitor or “task” selectors used by large groups of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing— such as the IP addresses of computer servers used by hundreds of different people.

• Retention and Use. The NSA retains all communications that contain selectors associated with its targets, as well as those that happened to be bundled with them in transit….

NSA analysts may read, query, data-mine, and analyze these communications with few restrictions, and they may share the results of those efforts with the FBI, including in aid of criminal investigations….. In other words, the NSA copies and reviews the communications of millions of innocent people to determine whether they are discussing or reading anything containing the NSA’s search terms. The NSA’s practice of reviewing the content of communications for selectors is sometimes called “about” surveillance. This is because its purpose is to identify not just communications that are to or from the NSA’s targets but also those that are merely “about” its targets. Although it could do so, the government makes no meaningful effort to avoid the interception of communications that are merely “about” its targets; nor does it later purge those communications.

PDF document of Lawsuit