NSO Group Knock On: More Attention Directed at Voyager Labs?

April 12, 2022

Not many people know about Voyager Labs, its different businesses, or its work for some government entities. From my point of view, that’s how intelware and policeware vendors should conduct themselves. Since the NSO Group’s missteps have fired up everyone from big newspaper journalists to college professors, the once low profile world of specialized software and services has come to center stage. Unfortunately most of the firms providing these once secret specialized functions are, unlike Tallulah Bankhead, ill prepared for the rigors of questions about chain smoking and a sporty life style. Israeli companies in the specialized software and services business are definitely not equipped for criticism, exposure, questioning by non military types. A degree in journalism or law is interesting, but it is the camaraderie of a military unit which is important. To be fair, this “certain blindness” can be fatal. Will NSO Group be able to survive? I don’t know. What I do know is that anyone in the intelware or policeware game has to be darned careful. The steely gaze, the hardened demeanor, and the “we know more than you do” does not play well with an intrepid reporter investigating the cozy world of secretive conferences, briefings at government hoe downs, or probing into private companies which amass user data from third-party sources for reselling to government agencies hither and yon.

Change happened.

I read “On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Cop.” The author of the article is Albert Fox-Cahn, the founder and director of STOP. Guess what the acronym means? Give up. The answer is: The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

Where does this outfit hang its baseball cap with a faded New York Yankees’ emblem? Give up. The New York University Urban Justice Center. Mr. Fox-Cahn is legal type, and he has some helpers; for example, fledgling legal eagles. (A baby legal eagle is technically eaglets or is it eaglettes. I profess ignorance.) This is not a Lone Ranger operation, and I have a hunch that others at NYU can be enjoined to pitch in for the STOP endeavor. If there is one thing college types have it is an almost endless supply of students who want “experience.” Then there is the thrill of the hunt. Eagles, as you know, have been known to snatch a retired humanoid’s poodle for sustenance. Do legal eagles enjoy the thrill of the kill, or are they following some protein’s chemical make up?

The write up states:

Increasingly, internet surveillance is operating under our consent, as police harness new software platforms to deploy networks of fake accounts, tricking the public into giving up what few privacy protections the law affords. The police can see far beyond what we know is public on these platforms, peaking behind the curtains at what we mean to show and say only to those closest to us. But none of us know these requests come from police, none of us truly consent to this new, invasive form of state surveillance, but this “consent” is enough for the law, enough for the courts, and enough to have our private conversations used against us in a court of law.

Yeah, but use of public data is legal. Never mind, I hear an inner voice speaking for the STOP professionals.

The article then trots through the issues sitting on top of a stack of reports about actions that trouble STOP; to wit, use of fake social media accounts. The idea is to gin up a fake name and operate as a sock puppet. I want to point out that this method is often helpful in certain types of investigations. I won’t list the types.

The write up then describes Voyager Labs’ specialized software and services this way:

Voyager Labs claims to perceive people’s motives and identify those “most engaged in their hearts” about their ideologies. As part of their marketing materials, they touted retrospective analysis they claimed could have predicted criminal activity before it took place based on social media monitoring.

Voyager Labs’ information was disclosed after the Los Angeles government responded to a Brennan Center Freedom of Information Act request. If you are not familiar with these documents, you can locate at this link which I verified on April 9, 2022. Note that there are 10,000 pages of LA info, so plan on spending some time to locate the information of interest. If you want more information about Voyager Labs, navigate to the company’s Web site.

Net net: Which is the next intelware or policeware company to be analyzed by real news outfits and college professors? I don’t know, but the revelations do not make me happy. The knock on from the NSO Group’s missteps are not diminishing. It appears that there will be more revelations. From my point of view, these analyses provide bad actors with a road map of potholes. The bad actors become more informed, and government entities find their law enforcement and investigative efforts are dulled.

Stephen E Arnold, April 12, 2022

Some Cellebrite Customers Revealed

March 11, 2022

This headline from Apple Insider should not be surprising, but it is bound to shock some individuals: “Most US Cabinet Departments Have Bought Cellebrite iPhone Hacking Tool.” The Intercept reported that fourteen out of the fifteen US Cabinet Departments purchased Cellebrite, technology designed to unlock Apple iOS.

Cellebrite is a common tool law enforcement, government agencies, military personnel and bad actors use to unlock iPhones. It is globally used. All of the major US Cabinet Departments, sans one, are not the only government entities that use Cellebrite:

“The Intercept claims that Federal purchasing records and Cellebrite securities documents seen by the publication, also show that several other federal agencies. Government buyers of Cellebrite include:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Housing and Urban Development
  • Social Security Administration
  • US Agency for International Development
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service

In those securities filings, the Cellebrite company reported having over 2,800 government customers in North America.”

Cellebrite has other major clients, including six out of the ten largest oil refiners and six out of then largest pharmaceutical companies. Cellebrite is a tool used by those with money and power. The bigger question is if the so-called “good guys” are using it for good or if they use Cellebrite in the same manner as the bad actors.

Whitney Grace, March 11, 2022

Clearview Aims to Collect Every Face, and More

March 4, 2022

Chances are, Clearview already has a record of your face. In fact, reports Silicon Republic, “Clearview AI Plans to Put Almost Every Human Face in its Database.” At least that is what it has told its investors, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. Writer Leigh Mc Gowran reports:

“Clearview AI, which describes itself as ‘the world’s largest facial network’, has built a database that currently holds more than 10bn ‘publicly available facial images’ taken from the web. It works with customers such as law enforcement agencies to compare facial data against its database. The US-based company has said this database is the ‘largest known of its kind in its industry’. A financial presentation the company created last December goes further than this publicly available statement. In this document, Clearview claimed it already has 11 times more facial recognition data than any government or non-government entity today. The facial recognition company claimed to be ‘achieving rapid international expansion’. It said it has more than 3,000 security and law enforcement customers in the US, including the FBI and ICE, according to documents shared by Washington Post tech reporter Drew Harwell on Twitter. … Clearview’s technology roadmap goes even further, with plans to develop services such as licence plate recognition, movement tracking and contactless fingerprint recognition. Last month, Clearview AI announced that it was awarded a US patent for a facial recognition capability that performed ‘nearly flawlessly’ in vendor tests.”

It sounds like the company is on a roll. All this despite increased regulatory pressure in several countries. The ACLU and authorities in Australia, Canada, and the UK have all taken action of one sort or another against the company. Meanwhile, mass biometric surveillance in general is being challenged in the EU. A couple companies have reversed course on the technology—Meta (formerly known as Facebook) pledged to delete the facial recognition data it had collected, and IBM promised to jettison its facial recognition and analysis software. For those firms, however, creepy AI was just part of the mix. Such software is Clearview’s entire game, and it seems determined to forge ahead with no regard for attempts to rein it in.

Cynthia Murrell, March 4, 2022

NSO Group: Dominoes, Anyone? Anyone?

March 1, 2022

In December 2021, the Zuckbook outfit released a report called “Threat Report on the
Surveillance-for-Hire Industry.” If you want to read this 17-page document, navigate to this url. If the document is disappeared, well, that’s life.

I wasn’t going to write about the banning of these intelware vendors’ firms:

  • BellTroX
  • Black Cube
  • Bluehawk CI
  • Cobwebs Technologies
  • Cognyte
  • Cytrox

And, according to the Zuck’s experts, a couple of Chinese outfits were in the list. I don’t want to hazard a guess, so let me say there are more than two of these types of firms chugging away in the Middle Kingdom.

A flurry of reports surfaced last week, including a report from My QtoA. You can read the summary at this link.

My take on this Zucking of specialized software and services firm is that I really want to ignore the impact NSO Group has had on a much needed and necessary market sector. What is unfortunate is that the Wild West, cowboy, and Silicon Valley “let’s get rich” mentality has diffused into what once was a secret carefully husbanded by government agencies.

Well, obviously, quite a few people, including bad actors, know about Pegasus and something about how it functions. The zero click compromising of a mobile device popped up in a recent phone call with a fellow who operated a trash hauling service. There you go. That’s diffusing if yo8u ask me.

Has the craziness caused by digital Marshal Dillons and their sidekick Chesters stopped? Probably not.

Another knock on that has not exhausted its momentum is the chatter at certain conferences about waiting for the storm to blow over. Yeah, hopeful and optimistic as the dominoes continue to topple. Perhaps the cowboys will hit the bunk house and think about something other than becoming rich and buying discounted yachts once owned by Russian oligarchs.

Stephen E Arnold, March 1, 2022

NSO Group: Now Taking Legal Action to Protect Its Image

February 28, 2022

I am not sure how long this story will be online with legal eagles from media and the intelware company NSO Group taking flight. The story is “NSO Sues Israeli Paper after Explosive Articles on Police.” [Note: The estimable Associated Press may remove the MFTV 9 story or put it behind a paywall where great content should thrive.] The original story whipped up a buzz saw of chatter about one of the more high profile surveillance systems. The Pegasus brand has been trampled by the plodding mules ridden by individuals unaware of the specialized software and services business, their customers, and the unreasonable effectiveness of zero click exploits.

The write up states that NSO Group went to court and demanded that the Calcalist be held to account for a story which is allegedly not true.

And what does NSO Group want? About $300,000 US dollars.

This is an interesting story with security and political implications. But the Kosher Mehadrin margarine on the kubaneh is the charity angle. Is that a PR move by NSO Group?

What’s fascinating to me is that the NSO Group has found a way to remain in the news despite recent events in Ukraine, financial turmoil in financial markets, and the headline making mask wearing thing.

Is this helping or hurting the intelware and policeware vendors? From what I hear, the NSO Group’s PR generating activities has not had a significant impact on vendors based outside of Tel Aviv. Israeli vendors find that some of their MBA-inspired enthusiasm for expanding their market share has been dialed back.

A bigger problem for specialized services and software companies is that knowledge has diffused widely so that start ups operated by good actors and maybe less good actors are popping up. Plus, some of the once secret systems and methods are creeping into the open source software environment.

Maybe secrecy has some value when it comes to government related activities?

Stephen E Arnold, February 28, 2022

Information Allegations Directed at Some Law Enforcement Entities

January 26, 2022

Before the advent of modern technology, police states were limited in the amount of surveillance they could conduct. As technology advances, the amount of information police can extract from people’s devices is as scary as science fiction. El Poder Deportivo explains a frightening surveillance tool US police are now using: “AI-Driven People Surveillance: US Cops Reportedly Utilizing Invasive Tool To Grab Candidates’ Social Media Marketing, Pornhub and Tinder.”

Police in Michigan are using a tool called SocialNet that captures data from social media and other pertinent Web sites. ShadowDragon is responsible for inventing SocialNet. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your political stance, Michigan is not the only state that is ShadowDragon’s customers. Massachusetts and the US Department of Immigration are on that list.

Law enforcement officials are not broadcasting they are using SocialNet, but the information it is in use is available after a little detective work. Michigan nor ShadowDragon admit what agencies are using SocialNet, but documents show that it was purchased through a third party called Kaseware.

Local and state governments spent a lot of money on the SocialNet application. Authorities are also whitewashing their justification for purchasing and using SocialNet.

It is not surprising that US police are using advances tools to collect people’s personal information. Law enforcement and governments have been doing that for centuries. The bigger question to ask if the US police are collecting the information lawfully or illegally?

“Likening ‘predictive policing’ to ‘AI-driven racial profiling and society surveillance,’ the United states Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Michigan workplace observed that ShadowDragon tools broken the “basic right to confidentiality.” In a number of tweets, the ACLU required the usage of such hardware https://datingmentor.org/escort/pomona/ to finish.”

SocialNet will probably be used in both positive and negative ways. It will capture plenty of evidence to put bad actors behind bars as well as hinder individuals who the governments do not like. In the wake of the NSO Group’s publicity tsunami, more specialized software vendors are likely to be subject to scrutiny.

Whitney Grace, January 26, 2022

ShadowDragon Profiled by Esteemed Tech Expert Kim Komando

January 13, 2022

This is an interesting turn of events. Policeware vendor ShadowDragon has been profiled by computer guru-ette Kim Komando on her Tech Refresh podcast episode, “Software Tracking Everything You Do, New iPhone, Alexa on Wheels.” The video’s description reads:

“Have you heard of ShadowDragon? It collects data from 120 major sites going back a decade. Yes, 10 years of info about YOU. Plus, the iPhone 13 and iOS 15 are here, along with Amazon’s new smart home gear, including Astro, the Echo on wheels.”

Yes, we have heard of ShadowDragon. The security company mines data from more than 120 social-media websites, archives results for a decade, and shares the information with its law-enforcement clients around the world. ShadowDragon boasts its software can take an investigation down “from months to minutes.” The podcast starts discussing the company at timestamp 13:05, warning one would have to refrain from social media altogether to avoid its reach. The inclusion seems to support our prediction that reporters are becoming more aware of, and reporting more on, such specialized service vendors. This will make it harder for such firms to keep their generally preferred low profiles. Based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, ShadowDragon was founded in 2015.

For those curious, that podcast episode also discussed the newest iPhones, covered some weird news stories, and reviewed smart floodlights, among other wide-ranging topics. Their coverage of Amazon’s Astro home robot caught the attention of this Alexa-wary writer—apparently the device is so thirsty to identify folks with facial recognition it will (if left in “patrol” mode) follow guests around until it can identify them. It also, according to Motherboard, tracks everything owners do.

Cynthia Murrell, January 13, 2021

Foreshadowing 2022: Specialized Software Companies May Face Bumps in the Information Highway

January 6, 2022

At one international intelligence conference, representatives of NSO Group were in good humor. The revelations about the use of their Pegasus system were, according to one person in attendance, great marketing. It struck me that this person who was sharing his impressions with me about NSO Group’s participation in a cocktail party, did not appreciate the power of marketing.

Specialized software vendors are now becoming part of the software landscape. “Former US Intelligence Analysts Sued For Hacking A Saudi Activist’s Phone On Behalf Of The United Arab Emirates” reports that there are risks to those who sign on to work for certain firms who obtain access to quite interesting software, tools, and and systems which allow confidential information to be made un-confidential.

The write up explains:

Three former US intelligence community analysts (two of which worked for the NSA) were fined $1.68 million for utilizing powerful hacking tools to target dissidents, activists, journalists, and the occasional American citizen for the UAE government.

Additional lawsuits are likely to be filed.

Here’s my take on the specialized software vendors in 2022:

  • Scrutiny and discussion of the companies providing governments with sophisticated surveillance and intelligence gathering systems will increase
  • The attention is going to make clear additional details about how these tools and systems accomplish their tasks. That information is going to diffuse. Actors will innovate and accelerate their efforts to increase the capabilities of unregulated and uncontrolled surveillance software.
  • Some of the specialized software vendors will have to shift their strategy. News releases about tie ups between specialized software companies may not be helpful in closing deals.

My hunch is that specialized software vendors will have to lower their profiles, rethink their marketing and positioning, and find a way to take more responsibility for their innovations. Since many specialized software vendors operate networks which validate and monitor their software’s operations, isn’t that a mechanism to take a more responsible approach to the use of what some like the Citizen’s Lab and the Electronic Frontier Foundation consider weapons?

My thought is that the Facebook-type approach has become popular among some specialized software vendors. But I don’t think 2022 will see a significant change in the vendors’ behavior. Those who monitor the sector, however, will amp up their activities.

Stephen E Arnold, January 5, 2022

Voyager Labs: Another NSO Group Moment?

January 6, 2022

Facebook has called out the significant but low-profile firm Voyager Labs, which creates and sells popular AI-based investigation tools, for helping the Los Angeles police department breach its terms of service. We learn from LaptrinhX News, “LAPD Allegedly Warned by Tech Giant to Stop Creating and Using Phony Accounts to Spy on Criminal Suspects.” The write-up reproduces the warning letter interspersed with commentary. The missive states Facebook learned of the dummy accounts from nonpartisan law and policy institute The Brennan Center for Justice. It warns:

“To the extent these practices are ongoing they violate our terms of service. While the legitimacy of such policies may be up to the LAPD, officers must abide by Facebook’s policies when creating accounts on our services. The Police Department should cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts, impersonation of others, and collection of data for surveillance purposes.”

The letter goes on to avow Facebook’s commitment to creating a safe haven for free expression and respect for users’ First Amendment rights. The line about concern for user safety comes across a bit strained amid the company’s current struggles, but no matter. We are more interested in the outfit that reportedly handed the LAPD a tool to make managing fake personas on Facebook easy. The letter states:

“It has also come to our attention that the LAPD has used a third-party vendor to collect data on our platforms regarding our users. Under our policies, developers are prohibited from using data obtained on our platforms for surveillance, including the processing of platform data about people, groups, or events for law enforcement or national security purposes. . . . We regard the above activity as a breach of Facebook’s terms and policies, and as such, we will disable any fake accounts that we identify and take action against third-party vendor conduct that violates our terms.”

Though Facebook did not name the vendor in its letter of admonishment, Breitbart reports The Brennan Center specified Voyager Labs as the culprit. That firm sells to government and law enforcement agencies and to private companies around the world. Founded in 2012 by a former Israeli intelligence agent of two decades, Voyager Labs keeps its R&D department in Tel Aviv, its headquarters in New York City, and satellite offices in Europe, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific.

Cynthia Murrell, January 6, 2022

Can Policeware Make Corporate Sales?

January 5, 2022

How can makers of policeware jump into the corporate market and thrive? One approach: scare private companies into believing their current techniques are dangerously inadequate. That is the approach Cobwebs Technologies is taking with its recent open letter to corporate security teams. Miscw reproduces an excerpt from their missive in, “Overcoming the Pitfalls of Poor Corporate Intelligence: What Security Teams Need to Get Ahead.” Cobwebs director/ letter writer Johnmichael O’Hare warns:

“Organizations naturally settle on practices that have worked in the past. They may limit their threat scanning to a limited number of social media platforms, for example. Such narrowly focused inquiries, however, fail to account for fast-moving changes in web-based platforms, forums, and chat groups. Users discouraged from posting inflammatory messages on one mainstream platform will frequently move to lesser-known, alternative platforms. … Corporate security teams must also keep tabs on information sources and repositories housed in the deep web and the dark web, both of which are not indexed by conventional search engines. Those web layers contain a multitude of data that could threaten a business. The dark web, in particular, harbors numerous sites and markets trafficking in login credentials, trade secrets, email addresses, credit card numbers, and tools for engaging in cyberattacks. Dark web forums, which suddenly surface and just as rapidly disappear, can also contain information relevant to a corporate security investigation. In short, the organization still dependent on social media channels for threat assessment needs to broaden its horizons.”

And what better way to do so than to enlist the aid of an outfit like Cobwebs? This is not the first Israeli-founded government-agency vendor to try penetrating the corporate market; it follows the likes of Voyager Labs and others. Founded in 2015, OSINT-centric firm Cobwebs is now headquartered in New York City.

Cynthia Murrell, January 4, 2021

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