U. S. government agencies from the military to law enforcement have been buying up mobile-phone data from the private sector to use in gathering intelligence, monitoring adversaries and apprehending criminals. Now, the U.S. Air Force is experimenting with the next step.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is testing a commercial software platform that taps mobile phones as a window onto usage of hundreds of millions of computers, routers, fitness trackers, modern automobiles and other networked devices, known collectively as the “Internet of Things.” SignalFrame, a Washington, D.C.-based wireless technology company, has developed the capability to tap software embedded on as many as five million cellphones to determine the real-world location and identity of more than half a billion peripheral devices. The company has been telling the military its product could contribute to digital intelligence efforts that weave classified and unclassified data using machine learning and artificial intelligence.
The Air Force’s research arm bought the pitch, and has awarded a $50,000 grant to SignalFrame as part of a research and development program to explore whether the data has potential military applications, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Under the program, the Air Force could provide additional funds should the technology prove useful.
SignalFrame has largely operated in the commercial space, but the documents reviewed by the Journal show the company has also been gunning for government business. A major investor is Razor’s Edge, a national-security-focused venture-capital firm. SignalFrame hired a former military officer to drum up business and featured its products at military exhibitions, including a “pitch day” sponsored by a technology incubator affiliated with U.S. Special Operations command in Tampa, Fla.
SignalFrame’s product can turn civilian smartphones into listening devices—also known as sniffers—that detect wireless signals from any device that happens to be nearby. The company, in its marketing materials, claims to be able to distinguish a Fitbit from a Tesla from a home-security device, recording when and where those devices appear in the physical world. Using the SignalFrame technology, “one device can walk into a bar and see all other devices in that place,” said one person who heard a pitch for the SignalFrame product at a marketing industry event…
“The capturing and tracking of unique identifiers related to mobile devices, wearables, connected cars—basically anything that has a Bluetooth radio in it—is one of the most significant emerging privacy issues,” said Alan Butler, the interim executive director and general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that advocates for stronger privacy protections. “Increasingly these radios are embedded in many, many things we wear, use and buy,” Mr. Butler said, saying that consumers remain unaware that those devices are constantly broadcasting a fixed and unique identifier to any device in range.
Byron Tau, Military Tests New Way of Tracking, WSJ, Nov. 28, 2020