Category Archives: Surveillance Society

NSA’s Social Network Mapping is More Vast, Omnipresent and Horrifying Than Snowden Revealed

themindunleashed.com

(TMU) – Most people know by now about the surveillance abuses perpetrated by the NSA earlier this century, but a new book about Edward Snowden suggests that the metadata collection programs introduced to us through previous whistleblowers and disclosures are part of a “live, ever-updating social graph of the US” that is ongoing and far vaster than we previously imagined.

The revelations come from journalist Barton Gellman, who described the content of his new book Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State for Wired. The article, entitled “Inside the NSA’s Secret Tool for Mapping Your Social Network,” catalogs Gellman’s attempts to reveal more details about the programs Snowden first disclosed to the world.

What he found shocked him and, he says, represents an ongoing existential threat to American citizens.

Gellman says that originally he wanted to understand more about the logistics of the NSA phone records. The Snowden archive hints at but does not explain the details of the agency’s project pipelines.

The main thoroughfare of data collection, Stellarwind, was a domestic surveillance program launched by Vice President Dick Cheney only weeks after 9/11. He mandated that all operatives and subordinates conceal the program from FISA Court judges and Congress, stamping it with the most covert of government classifications, ECI, “exceptionally controlled information.”

Stellarwind facilitated Mainway, the NSA’s prized social network mapping tool which conscripted telephone data companies like AT&T and Verizon into secretive–and financially lucrative–data collection contracts negotiated by Special Source Operations.

But even this was just the tip of the iceberg.

The Mainway program codified two important but (until now) obfuscated surveillance and data mining objectives: contact chaining and precomputation.

Contact Chaining

While the NSA long maintained that their surveillance programs merely stored untraced metadata that could help investigate the activities of known terrorist operatives, we now know that the agency was actively leveraging and exploiting the data to build an almost mind-bogglingly complex, next-generation social graph. As described by Gellman, this tool combined the concepts of “six degrees of separation” (or six degrees of Kevin Bacon, if you prefer) and a pre-COVID19 model of contact tracing.

Termed contact chaining and first deployed during the manhunt and investigation of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a new suite of software tools used the NSA’s intercepted communications (read, our personal information), including voice, video, email and chat text, attachments, pager messages, etc. to build a cutting-edge form of data analysis that can algorithmically parse data records to illustrate indirect relationships between any and all intelligence assets (read, us).

According to Gellman, Mainway turned into “the queen of metadata, foreign and domestic, designed to find patterns that content did not reveal…[and] identify, track, store, manipulate and update relationships” to create a global graph, an integrated graphical map, representing the “movements and communications” of virtually everyone on Earth.

Named “the Big Awesome Graph,” or “the BAG” for short, this tool was the principal data harvesting tool in the umbrella directive of “Large Access Exploitation.” It “mapped the call records as “nodes” and “edges” on a grid so large that the human mind, unaided, could not encompass it.”

Precomputation

The NSA’s Mainway program sought to use its newly and somewhat hastily assembled software to continuously contact chain profiles on all global citizens. The FBI commandeered over a billion new records each day from the telephone companies and the NSA ingested that info to “get a head start on everyone.”

Termed precomputation, the idea was and is to create a “constant, complex…7×24…live, ever-updating social graph,” called Graph-in-Memory, of every US citizen and a large number of non-citizens and international citizens.

Gellerman writes:

“All kinds of secrets—social, medical, political, professional—were precomputed, 24/7…a database that was preconfigured to map anyone’s life at the touch of a button.”

He maintains that only 22 top officials had the authority to order a so-called contact chain. However, the dangers of such power abound.

In its post-911 sprint to to dominate the global communications infrastructure,” the NSA opened a veritable Pandora’s box, whereby “governments at all levels [may use] the power of the state most heavy-handedly, sometimes illegally, to monitor communities disadvantaged by poverty, race, religion, ethnicity, and immigration status.”

Gellman observes that “nearly anyone in the developed world can be linked to at least one fact in a computer database that an adversary could use for blackmail, discrimination, harassment, or financial or identity theft.”

“The latent power of new inventions,” Gellman writes, “no matter how repellent at first, does not lie forever dormant in government armories.”

In other words, if you’re worried about contact tracing in the age of Covid-19, worry no more: that ship has long sailed.

Mapped: The State Of Facial Recognition Around The World

From public CCTV cameras to biometric identification systems in airports, facial recognition technology is now common in a growing number of places around the world.

In its most benign form, facial recognition technology is a convenient way to unlock your smartphone. However, as Visual Capitalist’s Iman Ghosh notesat the state level, facial recognition is a key component of mass surveillance, and it already touches half the global population on a regular basis.

Today’s visualizations from SurfShark classify 194 countries and regions based on the extent of surveillance.

Click here to explore the full research methodology.

Let’s dive into the ways facial recognition technology is used across every region.

North America, Central America, and Caribbean

In the U.S., a 2016 study showed that already half of American adults were captured in some kind of facial recognition network. More recently, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled its “Biometric Exit” plan, which aims to use facial recognition technology on nearly all air travel passengers by 2023, to identify compliance with visa status.

Perhaps surprisingly, 59% of Americans are actually in favor of implementing facial recognition technology, considering it acceptable for use in law enforcement according to a Pew Research survey. Yet, some cities such as San Francisco have pushed to ban surveillance, citing a stand against its potential abuse by the government.

Facial recognition technology can potentially come in handy after a natural disaster. After Hurricane Dorian hit in late summer of 2019, the Bahamas launched a blockchain-based missing persons database “FindMeBahamas” to identify thousands of displaced people.

South America

The majority of facial recognition technology in South America is aimed at cracking down on crime. In fact, it worked in Brazil to capture Interpol’s second-most wanted criminal.

Home to over 209 million, Brazil soon plans to create a biometric database of its citizens. However, some are nervous that this could also serve as a means to prevent dissent against the current political order.

Europe

Belgium and Luxembourg are two of only three governments in the world to officially oppose the use of facial recognition technology.

Further, 80% of Europeans are not keen on sharing facial data with authorities. Despite such negative sentiment, it’s still in use across 26 European countries to date.

The EU has been a haven for unlawful biometric experimentation and surveillance.

– European Digital Rights (EDRi)

In Russia, authorities have relied on facial recognition technology to check for breaches of quarantine rules by potential COVID-19 carriers. In Moscow alone, there are reportedly over 100,000 facial recognition enabled cameras in operation.

Middle East and Central Asia

Facial recognition technology is widespread in this region, notably for military purposes.

In Turkey, 30 domestically-developed kamikaze drones will use AI and facial recognition for border security. Similarly, Israel has a close eye on Palestinian citizens across 27 West Bank checkpoints.

In other parts of the region, police in the UAE have purchased discreet smart glasses that can be used to scan crowds, where positive matches show up on an embedded lens display. Over in Kazakhstan, facial recognition technology could replace public transportation passes entirely.

East Asia and Oceania

In the COVID-19 battle, contact tracing through biometric identification became a common tool to slow the infection rates in countries such as China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. In some instances, this included the use of facial recognition technology to monitor temperatures as well as spot those without a mask.

That said, questions remain about whether the pandemic panopticon will stop there.

China is often cited as a notorious use case of mass surveillance, and the country has the highest ratio of CCTV cameras to citizens in the world—one for every 12 people. By 2023, China will be the single biggest player in the global facial recognition market. And it’s not just implementing the technology at home–it’s exporting too.

Africa

While the African continent currently has the lowest concentration of facial recognition technology in use, this deficit may not last for long.

Several African countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, have received telecommunications and surveillance financing and infrastructure from Chinese companies—Huawei in particular. While the company claims this has enabled regional crime rates to plummet, some activists are wary of the partnership.

Whether you approach facial recognition technology from public and national security lens or from an individual liberty perspective, it’s clear that this kind of surveillance is here to stay.