Tag Archives: surveillance

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