Is the TrapWire Surveillance System Spying on Americans?
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This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 14) to reflect that the main WikiLeaks website was once again reachable.
WikiLeaks is under attack again, and many Internet users speculate it may be related to information the site has recently published about a wide-spanning American surveillance system called TrapWire.
"What is TrapWire and why is Wikileaks under a sophisticated DDOS attack after posting docs about TrapWire?" tweeted journalist, professor and media critic Dan Gillmor Friday.
"What does it mean when Wikileaks publishes a trove of documents hacked by Anonymous from the strategic intelligence firm Stratfor — a trove that apparently details a massive electronic spying system run by the U.S. government — and is then hit by a massive and sustained distributed denial of service attack that prevents journalists and people at large from examining the documents in question?" wondered blogger J.D Tuccille on the libertarian Reason.com website. "I can't be the only person that finds that just a tad ... suggestive."
TrapWire itself is being touted as Big Brother, a hidden means to keep track of every citizen in once-free countries. There are allegations that it uses facial-recognition technology to identify suspects, and that it's been installed in most cities in North America.
"Surveillance Cameras Around The Country Are Being Used In A Huge Spy Network" read a headline on the Business Insider website Friday. "Stratfor emails reveal secret, widespread TrapWire surveillance system," said Russia Today.
"The government has created a piece of technology, called TrapWire, that siphons data from surveillance cameras in stores, casinos and other businesses around the country," wrote Annalee Newitz on the science-fiction blog io9. "Are we living in a total surveillance state without even realizing it?"
Yesterday (Aug. 12), Anonymous got into the act by announcing "Operation Trapwire," urging followers to "shut this system down and render it useless."
"A giant AI electronic brain able to monitor us through a combination of access to all the CCTV cameras as well as all the online social media feeds is monstrous and Orwellian in its implications and possibilities," read the Anonymous press release.
And just this morning (Aug. 13), the London Daily Mail told the world that the "U.S. government is secretly spying on EVERYONE using civilian security cameras."
Stratfor refused to comment on the matter. An email to TrapWire, Inc., seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Hold on, everyone
There are just two problems with this scenario. First, the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on WikiLeaks began more than a week ago, on Aug. 3, before WikiLeaks and other sites first posted information regarding TrapWire on Aug. 8.
"We are not doing this to call attention to ourselves," wrote AntiLeaks, a hacker group claiming responsibility for the DDoS attack. "We are young adults, citizens of the United States of America and are deeply concerned about the recent developments with [WikiLeaks leader] Julian Assange and his attempt at asylum in Ecuador. Assange is the head of a new breed of terrorist. We are doing this as a protest against his attempt to escape justice into Ecuador."
Could it be that someone outside WikiLeaks was tipped off that the TrapWire information would be coming out?
"It's possible that [former TrapWire owner] Abraxas et al. got word that Wikileaks was to be publishing info on TrapWire," said Barrett Brown, a writer who has worked with Anonymous. "It's impossible for anyone to say what methods of surveillance or even HUMINT [human intelligence] Wikileaks and its people are subjected to. But I'll remain agnostic on the issue until I see any evidence of this, as coincidence is always possible"
The second problem is that TrapWire is no secret, it's not run by the government and it's not everywhere. The Reston, Va.-based company behind it, now also called TrapWire, is happy to tell people what it does.
"TrapWire is a unique, predictive software system designed to detect patterns indicative of terrorist attacks or criminal operations," reads a page on the TrapWire website. "Utilizing a proprietary, rules-based engine, TrapWire detects, analyzes and alerts on suspicious events as they are collected over periods of time and across multiple locations.
"Through the systematic capture of these pre-attack indicators, terrorist or criminal surveillance and pre-attack planning operations can be identified — and appropriate law enforcement counter measures employed ahead of the attack."
In plain English, TrapWire collects and analyzes surveillance-camera footage as part of counterterrorist efforts.
Laying it all out
Two executives at Abraxas Corp., TrapWire's former owner, wrote an article for the November/December 2006 issue of Crime and Justice International magazine explaining the system. Brochures describing the system can be found online. An Abraxas patent filing for the TrapWire system is a matter of public record.
The patent filing explains that TrapWire is meant to catch potential terrorists conducting their own surveillance and reconnaissance missions on public facilities.
"While international terrorist organizations are using increasingly sophisticated methods, their modus operandi does contain a critical vulnerability: meticulous pre-attack preparations require the terrorists to approach a target facility on multiple occasions to identify and physical and procedural vulnerabilities, probe for weaknesses and conduct practice missions," the patent filing reads.
"TrapWire is specifically designed to exploit this vulnerability by combining deep counterterrorism experience, proven counter-surveillance techniques, unique sensor systems and data mining capabilities to detect attack preparations and allow security personnel to deter or intercept terrorists."
Eyes without a face
While the TrapWire company doesn't disclose who its clients are (its website took down a page detailing its executives' ties to the CIA), it's easy to find some of them.
The minutes of a New Jersey Transit board meeting in November 2011 reveal that a board member recommended the transit authority adopt the system, since it was already being used by the neighboring Metropolitan Transit Authority, which runs the New York City subway and bus systems and operates several commuter railroads.
(Last week, the New York Police Department revealed that already has an even more sophisticated surveillance system in place, which it developed with Microsoft.)
Other TrapWire clients include the Las Vegas Police Department, which provided the software to more than a dozen casinos and, according to Stratfor emails leaked by WikiLeaks, the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., police departments and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
"It's also been used in London for a while," said Brown, who's been collecting information on Internet-based government surveillance efforts.
Nor is there firm evidence that TrapWire collects facial recognition data. As Internet muckraker Ben Doernberg found in an article dispelling some of the rumors, TrapWire's owners think they don't need it. (PrivacySOS, run by the Massachusetts branch of the ACLU, ran a similar debunking story.)
"The nuclear industry has 104 civilian owned and operated nuclear power plants, and yet they don’t collect or share pre-attack information," Abraxas founder and retired CIA officer Richard "Hollis" Helms told the Northern Virginia Technology Council in 2007. "TrapWire can help do that without infringing anyone's civil liberties. It can collect information about people and vehicles that is more accurate than facial recognition, draw patterns, and do threat assessments of areas that may be under observation from terrorists."
"Generally, no Personal Information or Sensitive Personal Information is recorded by the TrapWire system, and no such information is used by the system to perform its various functions," read the policy paper.
"In the event a system user were to enter either Personal Information or Sensitive Personal Information in a comments field, TrapWire will not share or expose that information to any other subscriber on the system, unless required by law, and, in any case, will otherwise adhere to Safe Harbor Privacy Principles with respect to that information."
The real problems: past, present and future
Whether or not TrapWire's operators are telling the truth about its capabilities is up to the conspiracy theorists, and the lawyers, to decide.
The real scandal, buried beneath the hype, may be that Stratfor seems to have acted as a front man for Abraxas in exchange for a percentage of sales. Stratfor's other clients might not be happy to learn that the firm may be working for a competitor.
"TrapWire for the Great State of Texas is a go. Cash should begin to flow to Abraxas within 10 days," allegedly wrote former Stratfor chief executive officer Fred Burton in an email dated July 16, 2009. "As many of you old-timers know, we arranged to get a cut. I think the first dump is $250,000 to Abraxas, with an annual renewal of $150,000 per year for the TrapWire license."
"TrapWire may be the most successful invention on the GWOT [global war on terrorism] since 9-11," Burton added. "I knew these hacks when they were GS-12's [mid-salaried federal employees] at the CIA. God Bless America. Now they have EVERY major HVT [high-value target] in CONUS [continental U.S.], the UK, Canada, Vegas, Los Angeles, NYC as clients."
(Later in 2009, Burton left Stratfor to take a position with the Texas Department of Public Safety. He has since returned to Stratfor as its vice president of intelligence.)
In any case, Anonymous has geared up for action.
"We will find, hack — and destroy the servers where the AI 'electronic brain' of this program is housed," read Sunday's Anonymous press release.
It hinted at an action called "Smash a Cam Saturday," though it did not give the date when Guy Fawkes-masked vigilantes should take baseball bats to security cameras.
"TrapWire has access to virtually all CCTV's that have IP/internet connectivity," the press release said. "We have prepared an initial map/database of these cameras across the USA, and we will continue to expand this knowledge base."
"I gather that they intend for every Saturday to be sort of camera-smashing holiday," Brown said.
UPDATE: Late Monday (Aug. 13), the main WikiLeaks website once again became reachable. According to SC Magazine, the accessibility was due to a service agreement that WikiLeaks reached with CloudFlare, an Internet-traffic security and reliability provider.