Corporate Surveillance and the Intelligence Community

Wolf Richter's picture

Wolf Richter

Keyhole Inc., a venture-capital funded startup, was acquired by Google in 2004. Its product became Google Earth. Its technology filtered into Google Maps and Google Mobile. One of the venture-capital investors? The CIA. It didn’t ruffle any feathers at the time. But now we have NSA leaker Edward Snowden and his media blitz.

Bureaucrats and politicians from all sides explained to us with the patience of the exasperated that the NSA’s surveillance programs Snowden had leaked were for our own good, that they’d prevented over 50 “potential terrorist events” since 9/11, etc. etc. President Obama, while in Berlin, assured Chancellor Merkel and her countrymen that these spy programs had performed miracles in their country, and she too expressed her support for them.

Surveillance of billions of people around the world, grabbing their data, all their data, every last bit, where they went to dinner, who they met there, what they ate, and who they ended up spending the night with – if both have a smartphone – is hard work. But it’s the bread and butter of an entire US industry, a vibrant one that is hiring and creating jobs, with lots of startups, and with companies like Google and Facebook that are loaded with money and can buy some of these startups for eye-popping amounts, in cool laid-back places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley, or in Boston, or anywhere.

These companies are developing technologies to grab more data, make sense of it, combine it, analyze it, “mine” it, and monetize it. Because in the end, data is money. People who aren’t psychotically careful about communications and internet activities, or people who have a smartphone, no longer have any privacy. Instead, their privacy has been transferred to a new asset class that is now swelling up corporate balance sheets [here is my tongue-in-cheek take.... Google Spy Drones For Street View?]

What shook up America (briefly) wasn’t that Big Data knows everything about our lives – we seem to have accepted that – but that the government is getting bits and pieces of it to ferret out the occasional bad guy or use it for undisclosed purposes. Some companies claim to have handed over some of this data only reluctantly. But corporate America and the Intelligence Community have always had a productive relationship. Feeding on the big trough of government is a profitable business. According to the New York Times, unnamed “independent analysts say” that the NSA alone plows $8 billion to $10 billion a year into its Silicon Valley activities. And the CIA even has its own venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel.

Based on the priorities of its “customers,” primarily the CIA, IQT co-invests with private-sector VC firms in startups with “commercially-focused technologies that will provide strong, near-term advantages (within 36 months) to the IC mission.” It’s not shy about its purpose:  

IQT was created to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and new advances in commercial technology. With limited insight into fast-moving private sector innovation, the IC needed a way to find emerging companies, and, more importantly, to work with them.

So, Pure Storage, which develops all-flash enterprise data storage systems, announced in May the closing of “a strategic investment and technology development agreement” with IQT. That’s what these agreements are: two-way streets. IQT funds the company, and the company shares its technologies.

On June 5, Narrative Science announced an investment by IQT. “Narrative Science’s Artificial Intelligence platform analyzes data and communicates this information in a way that is easy to read and understand,” it quoted IQT Managing Partner Steve Bowsher as saying. “We believe these advanced analytic capabilities can be of great value to our customers in the Intelligence Community.”

GIGAOM had a grabby headline for it: “The CIA takes an interest in Narrative Science’s quick summaries of big data,” then explained what the company really did: “take heaps of data about, say, a sports game, a company’s quarterly earnings or a person’s life and surface the most important stuff.”

Since its founding in 1999, IQT has invested in hundreds of companies, many of which have succeeded and either went public or were acquired. One of them was Keyhole Inc. Other alumni companies include encryption software developer Decru, acquired by Network Appliance in 2005; business intelligence and search outfit Endeca, acquired by Oracle in 2011; 3-D facial recognition software developer A4Vision, acquired by BioScript in 2007; 3-D design software developer @Last Software, acquired by Google in 2006; data normalization technology developer Initiate Systems, acquired by IBM in 2010; etc. etc.

And some of the brightest minds walk through the revolving door between the IC and the tech sector. So the New York Times reported that Max Kelly, at the time Facebook’s chief security officer, “who was responsible for protecting the personal information of Facebook’s more than one billion users from outside attacks,” left in 2010 to join the NSA.

Companies work hand in glove with the IC. It’s big business – and for many executives and others involved, it has an aura of patriotism. For startups, it’s an enormous resource and a lifeline. Their business is Big Data, an asset class that contains every bit of personal information that you either eagerly or unwittingly handed over to corporate America and to companies around the world, including that app maker in Russia. Big Data is getting more effective, more universal, and more omniscient.

Snowden’s media blitz has shown the world that some of this data that corporate surveillance collects, analyzes, sells, or monetizes in other ways is also shared with government agencies ostensibly to catch some bad guys, but maybe also for undisclosed purposes. The only way to totally protect yourself from this data flow is to become a hermit cut off from modern life, and even then it might not be possible.

But there are things we can do to limit the amount of data being collected on us, including some tricks I use to maintain at least some privacy on the internet: Windows 7, Internet Explorer, Silverlight, Flash Player, & Java Privacy Settings and Cleanup.

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notadouche's picture

"Forget the myths the media has created about the White House.  The fact is they're not very bright.  Now things have gotten out of hand.  Just follow the money"

Deep Throat, All The Presidence Men.


The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it and here we go again though this time it's not the evil Republicans or Teabaggers.  Too bad as the media seems to have more balls and curiosity when it's the Republicans doing the misdeeds.  


falak pema's picture

so the greater the big data system the greater the asymmetric activity to blow it up; empire vs guerilla tactics.

The cost of empire status quo becomes prohibitive as big data is by nature very complex and increasingly expensive and NOT innovative in terms of freedom creation. Always; time favours the barbarian at the gates; once empire has morphed 100% to becoming security minded and outsourced to mercenaries; without any concern for freedom and innovation. 

ebworthen's picture

Spying = "data mining" or "marketing metrics" or "personalized search data" and probably 100 other such euphemisms.

Dewey Cheatum Howe's picture

Speaking of corporate surveillance and Big Brother. We know the cable companies won't be sharing this info with government agencies.

Big Brother alert: Cameras in the cable box to monitor TV viewers

It hardly gets more Orwellian than this. New technology would allow cable companies to peer directly into television watchers’ homes and monitor viewing habits and reactions to product advertisements.

The technology would come via the cable box, and at least one lawmaker on Capitol Hill is standing in opposition.

Mass. Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano has introduced a bill, the We Are Watching You Act, to prohibit the technology on boxes and collection of information absent consumer permission. The bill would also require companies that do use the data to show “we are watching you” messages on the screen and to explain just what kinds of information is being captured and for what reasons, AdWeek reported.

The technology includes cameras and microphones that are installed on DVRs or cable boxes and analyzes viewers’ responses, behaviors and statements to various ads — and then provides advertisements that are targeted to the particular household.

Specifically, the technology can monitor sleeping, eating, exercising, reading and more, AdWeek reported.

“This may sound preposterous, but it’s neither a joke nor an exaggeration,” said Mr. Capuano in a statement, AdWeek reported. “These DVRs would essentially observe consumers as they watch television as a way to super-target ads. It is an incredible invasion of privacy.”


Fox news TV piece on the same story.

Paveway IV's picture

" prohibit the technology on boxes and collection of information absent consumer permission..."

Why would anyone trust Verizon, Comcast or AT&T anymore? Modern cable boxes and WiFi smartphones already offer a convenient backdoor into your home network. Information is money - they'll sell you out in a second.

The NSA can potentially see everything on the internet because their equipment connects to the backbones through switches OF Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc. Their cable systems are two-way. If they don't give the NSA access now, it's because they're not forced to or the price isn't right (yet). 

Forget the NSA. The cable companies already know when you're watching cable and switching channels. Ever get those telemarketing calls where you don't hear anyone - around the same time of day for day after day? Thank the cable companies for a lot of them. They want to know if there's a human home and if that human is young, old, male or female. Marry that up with the cable box usage (is it on, how long on what channel, etc.) and they have valuble marketing data. Then they can sell that to other telemarketers so you get even more annoying calls. 

Cable is quickly becoming irrelevant just like newspapers and magazines. 

andrewp111's picture

Didn't we find out about this when Verizon patented it?

Of course, I use a projector, and the Verizon box is behind the screen, so even if there is a camera it has nothing to look at.

espirit's picture

AT&T U-verse?

Wouldn't doubt it.  Was told everyone gets "a pair".

BattlegroundEurope2011's picture

Alex Jones is now looking more sane after every leak FFS.


Ban KKiller's picture

I NSA love NSA big NSA brother. I NSA feel NSA safe.

Cursive's picture

The CIA is going to have a serious porn stash with all of the tumblr sites to cache.

Zer0head's picture

take a walk down the street of your average hood - little dome "security" cams adorn the front, back sides of new and old houses alike  

the person who owns  the house can not only record HD images 24x7 but can zoom. pan, tilt etc the cam towards anyone or anything  within 100 or 200 yards to crystal clear intimate resolution and they can record terabytes of this shit - the quality that these little HD cams can produce is beyond comprehension.  In some beach locations the mansions adjacent to the beach have six figure cam systems full HD night vision and day scanning the beach paths, the beach etc  add some audio and presto all in the name of security


but the real kicker are these middle class hoods where for a thousand bucks Fred can observe and record to his hearts content from a tiny innocuous looking dome cam stuck on his front, back and or side wall etc content clearer and in more detail  than your morning news program on a 60'' screen

this is scarey shit and there are no laws or at leasst no enforcement.


take a long hard look tomorrow at your neighbors' houses or the houses on your street if you spot one of those tiny dome cams chances are the controller of same can see  the poppy seed stuck to your tooth from your breakfast bagel


So while FB, Goog, Twit and the other bastards are vacuuming up meta and detailed info on your life, your friendly neighbour and his 14 yr old son  could be  wathcing your family's  life in full HD in the here and now, recording it 24x7, even publishing it and junior can hang with his buds and even monitor the goings on around his house from his effing iPhone while dear old dad can peak into an unsuspection neighbors bathroom window from his desktop  at work

Big Brother is here and he is your nextdoor neighbor