The Internet Whisperers
The Snowden leaks of the NSA Prism programme have introduced the term ‘metadata’ into the public lexicon and it is likely to become the most hated word of the decade.
During the hearings on the GCSB amendment bill, several people pointed out that collecting meta-data was just as invasive as intercepting phone calls or emails. The argument that the state is ‘only’ collecting the information that is already shown on one’s telephone bill and that this is therefore a harmless activity has been debunked during these hearings.
Some even go further and say that metadata is more important to the state than the actual data. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Edward Snowden said that “in most cases, content isn't as valuable as metadata” and Wired magazine explains why: “Content may be what we say, but metadata is about what we actually do.”
Metadata has become important because of increasingly powerful analysis software that can trawl enormous amounts of data in real time in order to establish relationships between people and to draw conclusions from them. State surveillance is increasingly shifting from eavesdropping on particular people against whom the state has some kind of evidence to mass surveillance of everything and everyone in order to detect patterns of behaviour which are considered ‘suspicious’.
This happens in cyberspace as well as in the real world. In Britain, some of the millions of CCTV cameras are connected to software that detects ‘suspicious behaviour’, such as walking in a particular way or lingering in a certain place for too long, and alerts the authorities to the person. The European Union has funded a 15 million Euro research project called INDECT to perfect this technique. Its ‘Intelligent Monitoring for Threat Detection’ component permanently scans video feeds and “automatically detects dangerous events and alerts the operator,” states the web page.
The NSA Prism software and the GCHQ’s Tempora do the same thing online. They analyse who calls or emails whom after visiting which web site, and when something looks out of the ordinary an alert is sent.
But what are the criteria that make a call or email pattern a suspicious activity? This question will be discussed at the NZ Institute of Intelligence Professionals annual conference in Wellington on July 23. The conference has the title “Exploring Behavioural Drivers” and will be held at the James Cook Hotel.
One of the ‘keynote addresses’ will be by a former FBI bigwig speaking on “detecting indicators of behaviour trends from the vast pool of public source information”, or “whispers of behaviour from the web”. If this sounds a bit unscientific, a psychology lecturer from Victoria University, Clare-Ann Fortune, will provide the scientific background on how psychology can be applied to “preventative behavioural analysis”.
The key phrase is ‘preventative’. People no longer come to the attention of the authorities because of actual things they do but because they happen to behave in ways similar to those of other people who are considered a threat.
Of course there is a huge amount of money to be made with all this. The main sponsors of the conference are software companies Wynyard and Palantir.
Wynyard is a multinational software company with an office in Auckland, that specialises in “powerful software to help protect companies and countries from threat, crime and corruption.” They list Homeland Security among their clients and they praise one of their products as “rapidly capturing and analysing data from digital devices” and say it is used to “interrogate computers, phones and other digital devices”. Over here, they also have connections to the government with one of Wynyard’s directors, Murray Horn, being the former CEO of the Treasury.
Palantir was recently in the news because the US based software company with a new office in Wellington has a product called PRISM, but insists that this has nothing to do with the mass surveillance program used by the NSA. Palantir is currently advertising various positions for ‘Forward Deployed Engineers’ and ‘Embedded Analysts’ to work with the NZ government. And Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel happens to be a mate of John Key’s.
Also exhibiting its products at the conference is Wellington company ‘Secure Intelligence and Investigation System’ (SiL). While its web site advertises software products, it also features a picture of a man with binoculars and walkie-talkie amidst a flax bush, suggesting that the company might also be involved in more traditional data gathering techniques.
The NZIIP conference also has sessions on “investigative interviewing techniques” and “technical skills for effective interviews” - the latter held by someone trained by the FBI. An interesting programme, but unfortunately, the conference is not open to the public. The programme can be found here.