The use of defence contractors to spy civilians, monitor activism and manipulate online discourse

70 percent of the entire US intelligence budget is spent on hiring private contractors, and  the U.S. “black budget” (for covert operations) that is allocated to the NSA amounts to over $10 billion (£6 billion). The NSA operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense.

After winning a $5 billion (£3 billion) contract to build the intelligence agency’s internal telephone and computer networking systems, Computer Sciences Corporation and Northrup Grumann paired up and formed The Eagle Alliance. The alliance then swept in a slew of other well known sub-contractors: BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Verizon, the last of whom are behind the NSA’s legally questionable metadata collection programme in the US.

Palantir, the CIA-funded digital analysis firm, also has contracts with the NSA, with one civil liberties analyst describing their technology as the precursor to a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale”. Raytheon, as well as providing the tech needed for some of the Pentagon’s advanced targeting systems, provides the tools for the NSA to protect their information.

And, of course, there’s Snowden’s old home – Booz Allen Hamilton – where he, a civilian, had the power to “wiretap anyone”. …

The close-knit relationships between the NSA and contractors are not just financial, though. A “revolving-door” policy, where ex-spooks become surveillance company CEOs and private contractor executives land high-ranking NSA jobs, is the norm. James Clapper, current head of National Intelligence, is a former Booz Allen Hamilton executive. Mick McConnell, who was head of National Intelligence under Bush, is now Vice Chairman of BAH – and he has an even more convoluted history with the private and government sectors.

Joseph Cox, “How Private Contractors Are Profiting From Government Surveillance“, 11 February 2014, Vice

Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests,” said Nafeez Ahmed:

This activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate changeenergy shocks or economic crisis – or all three. …

Speaking about the group’s conclusions at giant US defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton’s conference facility in Virginia, Lt Col. Mark Elfendahl – then chief of the Joint and Army Concepts Division – highlighted homeland operations as a way to legitimise the US military budget:

“An increased focus on domestic activities might be a way of justifying whatever Army force structure the country can still afford.”

… Similarly, FBI documents confirmed “a strategic partnership between the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the private sector” designed to produce intelligence on behalf of “the corporate security community.” A PCJF spokesperson remarked that the documents show “federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”

Nafeez Ahmed, “Pentagon bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks,” 14 June 2013, Guardian

In 2011, a batch of stolen e-mails revealed a plot by a set of three defense contractors (Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal) to target activists, reporters, labor unions and political organizations:

The plans— one concocted in concert with lawyers for the US Chamber of Commerce to sabotage left-leaning critics, like the Center for American Progress and the SEIU, and a separate proposal to “combat” WikiLeaks and its supporters, including Glenn Greenwald, on behalf of Bank of America— fell apart after reports of their existence were published online. But the episode serves as a reminder that the expanding spy industry could use its government-backed cybertools to harm ordinary Americans and political dissident groups. …

Firms like Palantir—a Palo Alto–based business that helps intelligence agencies analyze large sets of data—exist because of the government’s post-9/11 rush to develop a “terror-detection leviathan” of high-tech companies. Named after a stone in the Lord of the Rings that helps both villains and do-gooders see over great distances, the company is well-known within Silicon Valley for attracting support from a venture capital group led by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel and Facebook’s Sean Parker. But Palantir’s rise to prominence, now reportedly valued at $8 billion, came from initial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, and close consultation with officials from the intelligence-gathering community, including disgraced retired admiral John Poindexter and Bryan Cunningham, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice. …

In the wake of the scandal, HBGary Federal shut down, but its sister firm, HBGary, was later sold to another military contractor, ManTech International for $23.8 million. Bericoretained an influential DC lobbyist; Palantir increased their spending on lobbyists. Both companies managed to escape much scrutiny.

According to Essential Information, a corporate watchdog:

… a diverse groups of nonprofits have been targeted with espionage, including environmental, antiwar, public interest, consumer safety, pesticide reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups. The corporations carrying out the spying include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BP and others. According to the report, these corporations employ former CIA, National Security Agency and FBIagents to engage in private surveillance work, which is often illegal in nature, but rarely, if ever, prosecuted.

The NSA has also collaborated extensively with private software companies and hackers:

There are three broad ways that these software companies collaborate with the state: a National Security Agency program called “Bullrun” through which that agency is alleged to pay off developers like RSA, a software security firm, to build “backdoors” into our computers; the use of “bounty hunters” like Endgame and Vupen that find exploitable flaws in existing software like Microsoft Office and our smartphones; and finally the use of data brokers like Millennial Media to harvest personal data on everybody on the Internet, especially when they go shopping or play games like Angry Birds, Farmville, or Call of Duty.

… A decade after the Crypto Wars, RSA, now a subsidiary of EMC, a Massachusetts company, had changed sides.  According to an investigative report by Joseph Menn of Reuters, it allegedly took $10 million from the National Security Agency in exchange for embedding an NSA-designed mathematical formula called the Dual Elliptic Curve Deterministic Random Bit Generator inside its Bsafe software products as the default encryption method. …

According to the Snowden documents, the RSA deal was just one of several struck under the NSA’s Bullrun program that has cost taxpayers over $800 million to date and opened every computer and mobile user around the world to the prying eyes of the surveillance state. …

At a Google sponsored event in Vancouver in 2012, Vupen hackers demonstrated that they could hijack a computer via Google’s Chrome web browser. But they refused to hand over details to the company, mocking Google publicly. “We wouldn’t share this with Google for even $1 million,” Chaouki Bekrar of Vupen boasted to Forbes magazine. “We don’t want to give them any knowledge that can help them in fixing this exploit or other similar exploits. We want to keep this for our customers.”

In addition to Endgame and Vupen, other players in this field include Exodus Intelligence in Texas, Netragard in Massachussetts, and ReVuln in Malta.

Their best customer? The NSA, which spent at least $25 million in 2013 buying up dozens of such “exploits.” …

“This is the militarization of the Internet,” Appelbaum told the Chaos Computer Congress in Hamburg. “This strategy is undermining the Internet in a direct attempt to keep it insecure. We are under a kind of martial law.”

Pratap Chatterjee, “Selling Your Secrets,” 6 February 2014, TomDispatch

“Michael Hayden, the former director of both the NSA and the CIA, oversaw that privatization effort in the early 2000s and late ’90s. He told Shorrock — and I’ll quote, because I think it’s so interesting. He said, “The largest concentration of cyber power on the planet is the intersection of the Baltimore Parkway and Maryland Route 32.” That’s where the NSA and its top contractors are located. Hayden coined the term ‘Digital Blackwater’ to describe this stuff.”

Joshua Holland, “Revealed: How Corporate Spooks Spy on Nonprofit Activist Groups”

Britain’s GCHQ has a secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group), who developed sophisticated techniques and tactics to manipulate and control online discourse:

Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums. …

But these GCHQ documents are the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends. Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is the use of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds. …

Glenn Greenwald, “How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations,” 24 February 2014, The Intercept

Meanwhile Britain’s Ministry of Defence is developing a secret programme into the future of cyberwarfare, including how emerging technologies such as social media and psychological techniques can be harnessed by the military to influence people’s beliefs:

The projects are being awarded by a “centre of excellence” managed by BAE Systems, which has received about £20m-worth of MoD funding since 2012. The MoD plans to procure a further £10m-worth of research through the centre this year. …

“Cyberwarfare of the future may be less about hacking electrical power grids and more about hacking minds by shaping the environment in which political debate takes place,” he added.

The current MoD research drive in the area is being run by the Defence Human Capability Science and Technology Centre (DHCSTC), which is administered by BAE.

Ben Quinn, “Revealed: the MoD’s secret cyberwarfare programme,” 16 March 2014, Guardian