Mass Surveillance and No NSA. It Happens!

As my readers must know, one of my many problems with The Snowden Leak Keepers is the extent to which they largely reduce a gigantic surveillance problem involving 16 government agencies, hundreds of contract companies,  a gang of corporate co-conspirators, hundreds of local police forces etc, down to one bad agency. The Leak Keepers even seem hard-pressed to implicate Google’s rubbery arm in the twisting the NSA ‘s been giving it for years, for reasons that surely must owe to something vastly more 11 dimensional chessy than the increasingly friendly reception various Leak Keepers are getting from multiple corporate sectors and beneficentoligarchs. Therefore, I suppose I am duty-bound to occasionally depart from critiquing the painstakingly dumbed-down Leak Keeper narrative and instead demonstrate by example how misplaced its narrow focus on the NSA is.

Here’s a timely example, posted yesterday evening on Ars Technica:

At last month’s International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in Philadelphia, LexisNexis showed off a new tool it will bundle with its research service for law enforcement agencies—one that will help them “stake out” social media as part of their criminal investigations.

Called Social Media Monitor, the cloud-based service will watch social networks for comments and activities that might offer clues to crimes in the physical world. With direct connections into a variety of social media services’ feeds, it will help police plow through Twitter and Facebook in search of evidence that could lead to arrests.

Social Media Monitor is provided by an Atlanta firm called Digital Stakeout [which]  pulls data and metadata directly from Twitter’s “firehose,” as well historical data from Twitter. The system taps into Facebook posts and comments, Google+ and YouTube, Instagram, and other social media “big data” feeds. It performs a variety of rules-based processing on the data live from the source—including some proprietary natural language analytics [and] . . .includes sentiment analysis features to monitor the general mood of postings and pick up potential threats of violence.

Social Media Monitor, the article goes on, will complement Lexis Nexis’ Accurint for Law Enforcement  which is -

a sort of LinkedIn for law enforcement agents that provides a way to network and identify people with expertise at other levels of law enforcement. It also allows for access to public records about individuals and businesses that law enforcement can use to verify identities, locate suspects and their assets, and discover links between people that may not show up on their Facebook page.

Nothing surprising here, right? But don’t ho-hum me if you’re waiting breathlessly for the next Snowden scoop in which we’ll learn — lemme guess — that the NSA scoops up web and phone data somewhere and doesn’t spare foreign elites.  This Ars Technica story tells us quite a lot more, don’t you think? Here’s what’s notable:

1. Look Ma, no NSA!!!

Look who’s driving here, it’s the corporate sector.  There’s no evidence any government agency asked Lexis Nexis to produce this service. They saw that cops were using social networks anyway and decided to help.  The end users are not a scary federal agency but scary local militarized police who can be dispatched to an evil tweet-doer’s home in minutes. Assuming this product gets traction, its users will collectively comprise a massive surveillance network, and via Accurint — which is used by “over 4,000 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies” (source) – they’ll be one big national team working together. We can expect to see more and more of this so long as the Dept. of Fear money keeps flowing.

2. No national security interest gunking up the story.

Those inclined to think ‘ordinary Americans’ are uniquely important in the Snowden case should note that ordinary Americans are, so far, this product’s only targets. There is no national security alibi, though the service does promise upticks in NatSec-minded Muslim-harassing. It will also likely boost anti-drug enforcement efforts as well, and be quite handy in managing various rabble rousers in times of social unrest.  Among other things, identifying marks for concocted plots and drug stings is likely to get easier.  That ‘sentiment analysis’ stuff has all kinds of potential.

3. The use of open source intelligence.

As far as I can tell, no warrants or subpoenas are needed for any of this. Digital Stakeout and Lexis Nexis are pulling from data that people willfully make public via social networking and from Accurint’s 37 billion public records.

This is what they call Open Source Intelligence in the biz and all sorts of shady characters are showing a big interest in it. No wonder: since it mines publicly available information, open source intelligence occupies a kind of Fourth Amendment gray zone, where secrets are disclosed through automated analysis. If you have an unlimited storage capacity for data, and the processing power to analyze it, you theoretically can finger people for arrest or intimidation long before they resort to communication methods requiring warrants.  If indeed this is the future of signals intelligence, things like PRISM are likely to seem horribly hamfisted and antiquated in a few years, as will any policy changes they inspire if open source intelligence is not factored in.

4. Corporate complicity

The level of access Digital Stakeout has to Twitter,  Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Instagram should raise both eyebrows and questions. Perhaps Digital Stakeout is simply using public APIs, feeds and scrapes, with no involvement from these companies at all. Twitter has been heralded by privacy enthusiasts for opting out of PRISM and for being more protective of user data, so it’s interesting that the company has provided both Data Stakeout and a competitor, BrightPlanet, with access to its hard-to-get and highly prized ‘firehose‘.  I get that the info is public anyway, but it matters if these companies are making it easier for the surveillance apparatus to hoover it up and analyze it.

It certainly seems to me there’s a lot more to wring one’s hands over here than one finds in Angela Merkel’s cell phone. This is just one of tens of articles along these lines that get published every month — authored by uncelebrated scribes like AT’s Sean Gallagher — disclosing surveillance activity that equals or exceeds anything the NSA is doing. In most of these stories, all the damning details come straight from the spies’ own mouths, no heavily redacted leaks required! Our story began this time with Lexis Nexis bragging about its enhancements to the panopticon at a cop convention. Curious readers can find more on the Digital Stakeout blog and from Lexis Nexis’s Accurint sales pitch.  Or they can continue to watch some rich, connected guy wave a smelly red herring and some trophies around, on his way to saving journalism.

h/t @thomas_lord


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