There's a growing cottage industry at the nexus of consumer research and government surveillance.
In a report published Friday, the Wall Street Journal explored the world of Premise Data Corp., an innocently-named firm that uses a network of users, many in the developing world, who complete basic tasks for small commissions. Assignments can range from snapping photos of competitors' stores, to counting the number of ATMs in a given area, to reporting on the price of consumer goods on the shelf.
Roughly half of the firm's clients are private businesses seeking "commercial information" (mostly reporting on competitors' operations), both the US government and foreign governments have hired the firm to do more advanced reconnaissance work while gauging public opinion.
According to WSJ, Premise is one of a growing number of companies that are straddling "the divide between consumer services and government surveillance and rely on the proliferation of mobile phones as a way to turn billions of devices into sensors that gather open-source information useful to government security services."
Premise's CEO even hinted that the company had been tapped by foreign governments to help with setting policy about how to deal with "vaccine hesitancy".
"Data gained from our contributors helped inform government policy makers on how to best deal with vaccine hesitancy, susceptibility to foreign interference and misinformation in elections, as well as the location and nature of gang activity in Honduras," Premise Chief Executive Officer Maury Blackman said. The company declined to name its clients, citing confidentiality.
Premise launched in 2013 as a tool meant to gather data for use in international development work by governments and non-governmental organizations. In recent years, it has also forged ties to the American national-security establishment and highlighted its capability to serve as a surveillance tool, according to documents and interviews with former employees. As of 2019, the company’s marketing materials said it has 600K contributors operating in 43 countries, including global hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
Federal records show Premise has received at least $5MM in payouts from the government since 2017 on military projects—including from contracts with the Air Force and the Army and as a subcontractor to other defense entities. The company's key utility was, again, gathering information: It would use civilian users in Afghanistan and elsewhere to map out "key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes; and covertly monitoring cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square kilometer area."
In a presentation prepared last year for the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Aghanistan, Premise shared some details about its global operation which showed that it's mostly active outside the US.
It also showed how its "users" stationed around Kabul helped it collect data that are valuable to the US and Afghan military.
As the WSJ explained, data from Wi-Fi networks, cell towers and mobile devices could be valuable to the military for "situational awareness, target tracking and other intelligence purposes."
There is also tracking potential in having a distributed network of phones acting as sensors, and knowing the signal strength of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points can be useful when trying to jam communications during military operations.
When WSJ caught up with Afghani users of the app, they were told that the users were typically paid about 25 cents per task (about 20 Afghani). And that lately, some of the tasks had struck him as "potentially concerning." Premises claims that none of its users have ever been harmed while completing tasks.
In this way, many of the app's users are effectively being used as unwitting spies for the military.
But it's just one more thing to look out for. Next time you're traveling abroad and you see somebody taking a photo of a mosque or a bank, just remember, it might be part of an officially sanctioned intelligence operation.