For this firm, online surveillance is king
Company treads fine ethical line to avoid igniting invasion of privacy concerns
In a small office in Ashburn, Virginia, ensconced among the government contractors that make up the Dulles Technology Corridor, a start-up called Babel Street is bringing government-style surveillance to an entirely new market.
The company’s web crawlers, offered under a subscription called Babel X, trawl some 40 online sources, scooping up data from sites such as Instagram and a Korean social media platform as well as “dark Web” forums where cybercriminals lurk.
Police departments might use the service to scan posts linked to a certain neighbourhood over a specified period of time. Stadium managers use it to hunt for security threats based on electronic chatter.
The Department of Homeland Security, county governments, law enforcement agencies and the FBI use it to keep tabs on dangerous individuals, even when they are communicating in one of more than 200 languages, including emoji.
The firm, staffed by former government intelligence veterans, is part of an insular but thriving cottage industry of data aggregators that operate outside of military and intelligence agencies. The 100-person company said it is profitable, something that is rare for a tech start-up in its third year. It recently took on $2.25 million from investors, bringing its total capital to just over $5 million.
Businesses like Babel Street have to tread an ethical line to avoid igniting privacy concerns, even though the data they access is generally publicly available on the internet. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regard the industry’s growth as a worrying proliferation of online surveillance.
Last year, Chicago-based social media aggregator Geofeedia was thrust into the national spotlight when the ACLU published a report alleging it had helped police departments track racially charged protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
The report prompted Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to cut ties with Geofeedia, eliminating important data sources. The company laid off half of its employees soon afterward amid a broader restructuring.
Perhaps as a result, Babel Street does not access individuals’ people’s Facebook profiles, though the compa- ny’s executives say they have “a close relationship with Facebook.”
Babel Street’s executives say they have avoided controversy by closely adhering to privacy standards and limiting law enforcement officers’ access to the social media information they collect.
The Pentagon was Babel Street’s first customer. Agencies focused on counterterrorism would use the technology to monitor terrorists’ online chatter to predict attacks. Police departments and the FBI soon started signing up for the service.
The Department of Homeland Security pays for the product and passes the data to state and local first-responders, showing them the electronic footprint of an emergency event in real time.
“They have the ability to go in and look at the entire spectrum of social media platforms. They will look for keywords like ‘rescue’ or ‘dire situation’. And they will pass those messages to us,” said Lee Smithson, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Brand management has become an important line of business, as corporations face the increasingly difficult challenge of tracking their digital reputations. Some companies pay Babel Street to find out whether their intellectual property is being used without permission.
The company is even getting involved in hurricane response. The firm has trained its Web crawlers to track online scammers that might try to profit from disasters.
Jeffrey Chapman, CEO at Babel Street, says Babel Street’s brand of public metadata collection will one day be just as important to first responders as 9-1-1 phone lines.
“There are billions of smartphones on the planet.all you have to do is listen to them,” Mr Chapman added.
Information on chatter gathered from online platforms, enables quick response from units such as police counter terrorism officers.