For this firm, on­line sur­veil­lance is king

Com­pany treads fine eth­i­cal line to avoid ig­nit­ing in­va­sion of pri­vacy con­cerns

The East African - - OUTLOOK - By AARON GREGG The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

Elec­tronic foot­print

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.

Pic­ture: AFP

In­for­ma­tion on chat­ter gath­ered from on­line plat­forms, en­ables quick re­sponse from units such as po­lice counter ter­ror­ism of­fi­cers.

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