In January 2021, an unclassified memo revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), a military-intelligence unit of the U.S. government, buys huge amounts of commercially available smartphone data and uses it to spy on Americans and track their movement history.
By using publicly disclosed data, the DIA — and other agencies — can circumvent laws around warrants for requesting location data from phone companies, which are supposed to safeguard personal information.
This practice had been going on for over two and a half years prior to the memo’s release, and is now often used by the Department of Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies.
While the focus in the past was on the government and how access to this type of data can be used to jeopardize the privacy of American citizens and harm Constitution-granted privacy rights, little was publicly known about individuals and companies that supply such data to agencies and anyone able to fit the bill.
Enter Twitter, Zignal Labs and Anomaly Six. An amazing, eye-opening piece by The Intercept alleges how, when working in unison, these companies can track not only your Twitter
posts and usernames, but also your past and present locations — reportedly up to a point of accuracy of several feet.
In the article, it’s shown how Anomaly Six presented its pitch to Zignal Labs, proposing the following workflow: Anomaly Six would supply its “unmatched” GPS tracking capabilities. Zignal Labs would then use its tech stack to analyze Twitter’s data firehose, which provides the company with a torrent of data, consisting of every tweet posted in real time. This type of analysis would help Zignal Labs and their clients discern not only who tweeted what, but also who accompanied them at the time of the tweet, their past and their present location. (Zignal Labs has acknowledged that Anomaly Six “demonstrated its capabilities” to it, but it never “delivered Anomaly Six” to its customers.)
Twitter’s role in the mix was to simply turn on the spigot. After all, a lot of money was on the table. (Twitter has said its terms of service prohibit “conducting or providing surveillance or gathering intelligence.”)
According to the article, to prove that its technology worked, Anomaly Six demonstrated how it can track anyone — from members of special forces in the Russian military to individual U.S. government agents — from their workplace all the way back to their home address. (Anomaly Six has said it “cares about American interests, natural [sic] security and understands the law.”)
It’s a chilling article, but one I strongly recommend you read. It did a great job of demonstrating just how much power these kinds of companies have. Their clients include governments and government agencies, as well as private entities, and really, anyone wealthy enough to foot the bill.
If you think the only problem here is the government bulldozing your constitutional privacy rights, you’re only half wrong — your privacy is already non-existent. It’s been this way since you first turned on your smartphone and logged into a social-media platform.
Lost privacy is just one piece of the puzzle. When private startups and data brokers have access to this level of data, you can be sure that not only is there no privacy, but there is also no free flow of information. For example, let’s look at what Zignal Labs does:
On its homepage, the company allows its clients to “leverage narratives” and “detect — and take control of — threatening narratives before they emerge.”
Espionage isn’t just tracking individuals or their communication. It’s also shaping that same information to fit your own purposes. Companies like Zignal Labs sift through petabytes of data on an average day, analyzing communications on prominent social networks, identifying trending topics and then using whatever tools they have at their disposal to help clients shift the narrative toward whatever interest fits their agenda.
Some of the data brokers and narrative influencers rely on bots. As much as they are hated, bots are a powerful tool of deception, as they create a false notion of popularity and “community stance” on topics that tend to sway the undecided and uninformed. To do their task, bots need to be numerous and act in a coordinated manner.
This could be one of the reasons behind Twitter’s reluctance to disclose the number of bots currently running on the platform, as that could not only drive down advertising funds, but also uncover just how many corporate, Twitter-allowed bots are on the platform, manipulating masses and sowing dissent and narratives implanted by its clients.
But what does all this mean? For an average netizen, it means that privacy — or what’s left of it — died a long time ago. Information — and news — is being bought and sold, and the concept of a well-informed citizenry is being trivialized.
The U.S. still has a Constitution and controls, and a functioning democracy. But look at modern-day China and how the Chinese Communist Party deals with citizens, their individuality and their mindset. We don’t want a Western flavor of the same regime — different arguments, the same outcome.
How to safeguard your privacy, anonymity and security
If you’re a privacy seeker, you can still have some of it, at the great cost of convenience. Simply read this piece about privacy, anonymity and security and use it as your starting point. Be aware that it’s becoming slightly outdated, but it still has the vital information you need to keep your whereabouts from prying eyes.
What about staying safe from misinformation permeating the web? While I haven’t written a technical guide on it, here’s some common-sense tips that I often employ in my work. You may find it handy:
Question everything. Give everyone a chance to explain their case, and remember: It’s not about who is speaking the words, but what is being said. Nowadays, reputation is not a guarantee of integrity or honesty, so don’t rely too much on it.
Instead, do your own research, keep a critical mindset and get to the real source of information whenever you can. Dissect studies, instead of relying on simplified regurgitations. Getting to and talking directly to authors is even better. You would be surprised just how many scientists and experts are happy to discuss — and explain — their findings.
Get educated on topics you seek to research. Knowledge is readily available for those who seek it. Make friends with professionals, academics and experts. In a sense be your own investigative journalist, and even then, remain skeptical. The truth is never black and white, and it’s often much more complex than we are led to believe.
Don’t let any company’s or NGO’s PR influence you. Open financial statements and reports instead and follow the money. This speaks more about a company’s vested interests than any marketing campaign ever will.
Finally, be ready to be wrong. Admit your mistakes. Learn from falling for your own preconceptions, and it will help you peel away yet another layer from your everyday reality.
You may be surprised by what you find. Good luck.