Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

[BackChannel] Few Consequences When Cybersecurity Contractors Go Bad

BY Josh Glasstetter | Thursday, June 27 2013

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Josh Glasstetter is a blogger and researcher in Washington, D.C.

Whether you consider National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden a hero or villain, there’s good reason to be concerned about the contractors that carry out much of our government’s surveillance and cybersecurity work. Roughly 70% of the N.S.A.’s estimated budget is reportedly spent on outside contractors. Former agency director Michael Hayden coined an unintentionally apt term for these contractors -- Digital Blackwater.

The N.S.A. turns to an array of contractors to help it make sense of the vast amounts of information it harvests each day. A good example is Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley data-mining company that works with the military, government and intelligence community. I first learned of Palantir in a rather different context. In February 2011, emails were leaked by Anonymous that revealed a series of proposals by Palantir and its partners to virtually surveil and undermine labor unions, progressive advocacy groups, Wikileaks, and journalist Glenn Greenwald.

I was working for the Service Employees International Union at the time, which was one of the chief targets. Reading the emails back and forth between Palantir and two other contractors, Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal, I pieced the plot together. Initially, Palantir engineer Matthew Steckman reached out to the others about “offering a complete intelligence solution to a law firm that approached us.” That firm was Hunton & Williams, a well-connected corporate law firm that recently brought the F.B.I.’s cybersecurity counsel on board.

As Patrick Ryan of Berico explained, a Hunton client was being “targeted by another entity, specifically a labor union, that is trying to extract some kind of concession or favorable outcome.” All signs point to my then-employer, S.E.I.U., which was seeking an organizing agreement with a multinational services conglomerate.

The cybersecurity firms got to work on a plan for using military-grade technology to undermine the union. At Palantir, which was launched with backing from the CIA’s venture fund, Steckman and his colleague Eli Bingham got sign-off from company leaders to “exclusively partner with Berico in conjunction with Hunton to license this product to law firms for corporate campaign work.” By November 2010, the three contractors had a plan, dubbed the “Corporate Information Reconnaissance Cell,” and a name -- Team Themis.

Themis boasted in its proposal that it was “ideally suited” for the job based on its “extensive experience in providing game-changing results across the Intelligence Community and defense/government sector.” Themis would provide Hunton with a “full spectrum capability set to collect, analyze, and affect adversarial entities and networks of interest” and “utilize the powerful Palantir platform as the centerpiece.” Berico would manage the project, and HBGary Federal would, in Steckman’s words, focus on “digital intelligence collection” and “social media exploitation.”

Working with partners at Hunton, Themis tailored its proposed services to meet the needs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Themis recommended planting fake documents and using fake personas to infiltrate and undermine U.S. Chamber Watch, a watchdog group. Photos of two of my friends, taken without their knowledge at a rally, appeared in their sample work product.

Hunton pitched Themis to other clients as well. Booz Allen Hamilton -- Snowden’s former employer -- expressed interest in hiring Themis to attack Wikileaks on behalf of a major U.S. bank. HBGary Federal’s Aaron Barr recommended targeting journalist Glenn Greenwald because "without the support of people like Glenn Wikileaks would fold.” Steckman added it to the proposal, which also recommended "cyber attacks” against Wikileaks “to get data on document submitters."

All signals were ‘go’, and Hunton organized a meeting with Themis and the Chamber to close the deal. But days before the meeting, HBGary Federal’s emails were hacked and released, and Themis was exposed. The story exploded in the press, twenty members of Congress demanded an investigation and HBGary Federal folded. The Chamber even denounced Themis as “abhorrent.”

But what happened next was shocking -- nothing. Hunton kept its head down, and its clients denied any knowledge of Themis. Palantir and Berico made a scapegoat out of the shuttered HBGary Federal and denied high-level knowledge of Themis. They claimed, despite the evidence to the contrary, that they would never condone such tactics or the targeting of law-abiding Americans. Both firms hired lobbyists and sent them off to Capitol Hill. Steckman was placed on leave but then quietly rehired.

Two years later, there have been no consequences for the contractors. Berico recently won a contract with Special Operations Command, HBGary Federal’s parent company was purchased by a larger contractor, Mantech, and Palantir is rumored to be worth $8 billion -- your tax dollars at work.

There is currently nothing to prevent Themis-like schemes from happening in the future, if they aren't already. Digital Blackwater is free to turn its virtual guns on Americans in order to boost its bottom line. More than ever, Congress needs to evaluate the role of cybersecurity contractors and ensure that proper controls are in place.

Josh Glasstetter is a blogger and researcher in Washington, DC

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

More