Tag Archives: surveillance

Surveillance by the Masses for the Masses

New sensors, from dashboard cameras to satellites that can see across the electromagnetic spectrum, are examining the planet and its people as never before. The information they collect is becoming cheaper. Satellite images cost several thousand dollars 20 years ago, today they are often provided free and are of incomparably higher quality….

Human Rights Watch has analysed satellite imagery to document ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Nanosatellites tag the automatic identification system of vessels that are fishing illegally. Amateur sleuths have helped Europol, the European Union’s policing agency, investigate child sexual exploitation by identifying geographical clues in the background of photographs. Even hedge funds routinely track the movements of company executives in private jets, monitored by a web of amateurs around the world, to predict mergers and acquisitions. OSINT (open-source intelligence) thus bolsters civil society, strengthens law enforcement and makes markets more efficient. It can also humble some of the world’s most powerful countries.

In the face of vehement denials from the Kremlin, Bellingcat, an investigative group, meticulously demonstrated Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight mh17 over Ukraine in 2014, using little more than a handful of photographs, satellite images and elementary geometry. It went on to identify the Russian agents who attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, in England in 2018. Amateur analysts and journalists used OSINT to piece together the full extent of Uyghur internment camps in Xinjiang. In recent weeks researchers poring over satellite imagery have spotted China constructing hundreds of nuclear-missile silos in the desert.

Such an emancipation of information promises to have profound effects. The decentralised and egalitarian nature of OSINT erodes the power of traditional arbiters of truth and falsehood, in particular governments and their spies and soldiers. The likelihood that the truth will be uncovered raises the cost of wrongdoing for governments. Although osint might not prevent Russia from invading Ukraine or China from building its gulag, it exposes the flimsiness of their lies

Liberal democracies will also be kept more honest. Citizens will no longer have to take their governments on trust. News outlets will have new ways of holding them to account. Today’s open sources and methods would have shone a brighter light on the Bush administration’s accusation in 2003 that Iraq was developing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That would have subjected America’s invasion of the country to greater scrutiny. It might even have prevented it.,,

The greatest worry is that the explosion of data behind open-source investigations also threatens individual privacy. The data generated by phones and sold by brokers let Bellingcat identify the Russian spies who last year poisoned Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader. Similar data were exploited to pick out a senior Catholic priest in America, who resigned last month after his location was linked to his use of Grindr, a gay dating app.

Excerpts from The people’s panopticon: The promise of open-source intelligence, Economist, Aug. 7, 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

The Repressive Digital Technologies of the West

A growing, multi-billion-dollar industry exports “intrusion software” designed to snoop on smartphones, desktop computers and servers. There is compelling evidence that such software is being used by oppressive regimes to spy on and harass their critics. The same tools could also proliferate and be turned back against the West. Governments need to ensure that this new kind of arms export does not slip through the net.

A recent lawsuit brought by WhatsApp, for instance, alleges that more than 1,400 users of its messaging app were targeted using software made by NSO Group, an Israeli firm. Many of the alleged victims were lawyers, journalists and campaigners. (NSO denies the allegations and says its technology is not designed or licensed for use against human-rights activists and journalists.) Other firms’ hacking tools were used by the blood-soaked regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. These technologies can be used across borders. Some victims of oppressive governments have been dissidents or lawyers living as exiles in rich countries.

Western governments should tighten the rules for moral, economic and strategic reasons. The moral case is obvious. It makes no sense for rich democracies to complain about China’s export of repressive digital technologies if Western tools can be used to the same ends. The economic case is clear, too: unlike conventional arms sales, a reduction in spyware exports would not lead to big manufacturing-job losses at home.

The strategic case revolves around the risk of proliferation. Software can be reverse-engineered, copied indefinitely and—potentially—used to attack anyone in the world…. There is a risk that oppressive regimes acquire capabilities that can then be used against not just their own citizens, but Western citizens, firms and allies, too. It would be in the West’s collective self-interest to limit the spread of such technology.

A starting-point would be to enforce existing export-licensing more tightly… Rich countries should make it harder for ex-spooks to pursue second careers as digital mercenaries in the service of autocrats. The arms trade used to be about rifles, explosives and jets. Now it is about software and information, too. Time for the regime governing the export of weapons to catch up

The spying business: Western firms should not sell spyware to tyrants, Economist, Dec. 14, 2019

Dodging the Camera: How to Beat the Surveillance State in its Own Game

Powered by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), face-recognition systems are spreading like knotweed. Facebook, a social network, uses the technology to label people in uploaded photographs. Modern smartphones can be unlocked with it… America’s Department of Homeland Security reckons face recognition will scrutinise 97% of outbound airline passengers by 2023. Networks of face-recognition cameras are part of the police state China has built in Xinjiang, in the country’s far west. And a number of British police forces have tested the technology as a tool of mass surveillance in trials designed to spot criminals on the street.  A backlash, though, is brewing.

Refuseniks can also take matters into their own hands by trying to hide their faces from the cameras or, as has happened recently during protests in Hong Kong, by pointing hand-held lasers at cctv cameras. to dazzle them. Meanwhile, a small but growing group of privacy campaigners and academics are looking at ways to subvert the underlying technology directly…

Laser Pointers Used to Blind CCTV cameras during the Hong Kong Protests 2019

In 2010… an American researcher and artist named Adam Harvey created “cv [computer vision] Dazzle”, a style of make-up designed to fool face recognisers. It uses bright colours, high contrast, graded shading and asymmetric stylings to confound an algorithm’s assumptions about what a face looks like. To a human being, the result is still clearly a face. But a computer—or, at least, the specific algorithm Mr Harvey was aiming at—is baffled….

Modern Make-Up to Hide from CCTV cameras

HyperFace is a newer project of Mr Harvey’s. Where cv Dazzle aims to alter faces, HyperFace aims to hide them among dozens of fakes. It uses blocky, semi-abstract and comparatively innocent-looking patterns that are designed to appeal as strongly as possible to face classifiers. The idea is to disguise the real thing among a sea of false positives. Clothes with the pattern, which features lines and sets of dark spots vaguely reminiscent of mouths and pairs of eyes are available…

Hyperface Clothing for Camouflage

 Even in China, says Mr Harvey, only a fraction of cctv cameras collect pictures sharp enough for face recognition to work. Low-tech approaches can help, too. “Even small things like wearing turtlenecks, wearing sunglasses, looking at your phone [and therefore not at the cameras]—together these have some protective effect”. 

Excerpts from As face-recognition technology spreads, so do ideas for subverting it: Fooling Big Brother,  Economist, Aug. 17, 2019

Small Satellites-Big Data

Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th, 2017 It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.  The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm.

Providing daily updated images of the earth is not enough… Processing the images to answer pressing questions: what has changed since yesterday? Is that illegal logging? What does the number of containers in these ports suggest about trade balances? Planet will be providing more such analysis itself, but there are also third parties eager to play. SpaceKnow, a startup which focuses on turning satellite data into analysis the financial community will pay for, has just raised $4m….

Planet is not the only company using small satellites to produce big data; the launch on February 15th also carried up eight ship-tracking satellites owned by Spire, just a couple of streets away from Planet. The companies hope that, as more and more customers come to see the value of an endlessly updated, easily searchable view of the world, insights from satellites will become ever more vital to the data-analysis market. The more normal their wares start to seem, the more spectacular their future may be

Excerpts from  Space Firms: Eyes on Earth ,Economist, Feb. 18, 2017

GeoProfile as a Surveillance Tool

Guerrillas and terrorists are not fools. They are aware they may be under surveillance, and take what they hope are appropriate counter-measures. They are unlikely, for example, to make calls from inside a safe house in which they are living. Instead, they typically make calls from roughly spaced out nearby locations, taking care not to call too often from the same spot. They hope, thereby, that if their activity is being monitored, it will appear random and therefore meaningless.

Spacing things out like this is, in mathematical fact, anything but random: that, in itself, is suspicious. But true randomness would also be odd. As Ian Laverty, the boss of ECRI, a geoprofiling-software firm in Vancouver, observes, innocent phone calls have geographical patterns, because people have routines. Those who take steps to elude the authorities thus often end up unwittingly creating a profile of where their home base is—a profile that a piece of ECRI’s software called Rigel Analyst can spot. This software is used by more than 90 intelligence agencies around the world. Its applications include searching for Taliban rocket caches in Afghanistan.

Geoprofiling is thus already an important counter-insurgency tool…according to a geoprofiler in Denmark’s intelligence apparatus who prefers to remain anonymous. This operative uses geoprofiling software called ArcGIS that analyses Global Positioning System (GPS) data provided unwittingly by insurgents’ growing use of smartphones and other gadgets that are equipped, by default, with GPS kit. For example, simply right-clicking on propaganda images posted online often obtains a GPS “geocode” that reveals where the picture was taken.

Excerpts from Counter-Terrorism, Shrinking the Haystack,  /Economist,Jan. 16, 2016, at 86

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

FISA Court and Transparency

According to the Opinion of Judge F. Dennis Saylor of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) court, of Sept. 13, 2013 in response to a motion by the ACLU for release of certain opinions of the FISA court:

“The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 [Edward Snowden disclosure] of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable public interest and debate about Section 215 of the Partiot Act. Publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate. Congressional amici emphasize the value public information and debate in representing their constituents and discharging their legislative responsibilities. Publication would also assure citizens of the integrity of this Court’s proceedings.

In addition, publication with only limited redactions may now be feasible, given the extent of the government’s recent public disclosures about how Section 215 is implemented. Indeed, the government advises that a declassification review process is already underway.  In view of these circumstances, and as an exercise of discretion, the Court has determinedthat it is appropriate to take steps toward publication of any Section 215 Opinions that are not subject to the ongoing FOIA litigation…”

Excerpt, See United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, In Re Orders of this Court Interpreting Section 215 of the Patriot Act, Docket No. Misc. 13-02

Surveillance State: how China helps Africa

A Chinese surveillance firm Nanjing Les Information Technology has won a $5 million contract to install an integrated urban surveillance system (IUSS) project in the Kenyan city of Nairobi.  The project is planned to be completed by February 2013, a senior Kenyan official disclosed on Tuesday, according to a Baku-APA report.  Nairobi Metropolitan Minister Jamleck Kamau said the security surveillance equipment is planned to help monitor traffic and thwart potential terrorist attacks in the city.  “The system will enable live streaming of video from different areas of the city as well as record and store video for later viewing,” Kamau reportedly told journalists in Nairobi. “The system is of an open architecture which means it will enable scaling up later and connection of existing and/or any other private entities.”

The minister said the system could even capture speeding vehicles’ number plate details in the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD).  Phase one of the project is expected to be installed at 51 traffic lights and crime spots within the CBD.  Kamau said Nanjing Les Information Technologies won the tender among 27 firms which had applied and returned the forms on the grounds of technical capacity and better pricing ($5 million).

In May this year it was announced that Kenya would soon begin installing close-circuit television cameras across the country, starting with the capital Nairobi, after receiving a $100 million grant from China.  “We are going to start the installation almost immediately,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga told Kenya’s parliament at the time. “And this is going to spread to other cities, Mombasa is next, then Kisumu and other cities.”  He said that Kenya had received a US$100 million grant from China for the project, and that the goal is to stop terrorism and improve security.

Nairobi blames Somali-based al Shabaab militants for cross-border raids and kidnappings that have threatened the country’s multi-million dollar tourism industry. Since Kenya sent troops into Somalia last year, militants have threatened reprisals if Kenyan troops do not withdraw.  “The country is at the moment facing a lot of security challenges arising from the operation in Somalia,” Odinga said. “With Al Shabaab’s capability to wage conventional warfare completely degraded, the militia has resorted to guerrilla tactics. This includes the use of grenades, improvised explosive devices and sporadic shootings to attack business premises, security forces and members of the public.”

Chinese firm receives $5 million Nairobi surveillance contract, DefenceWeb, Nov. 30,2012