The Expanding PR Challenge for Cyber Threat Intelligence Outfits

August 10, 2022

Companies engaged in providing specialized services to law enforcement and intelligence entities have to find a way to surf on the building wave of NSO Group  backlash.

What do I mean?

With the interest real journalists have in specialized software and services has come more scrutiny from journalists, financial analysts, and outfits like Citizens Lab.

The most recent example is the article which appeared in an online publication focused on gadgets. The write up is “: These Companies Know When You’re Pregnant—And They’re Not Keeping It Secret. Gizmodo Identified 32 Brokers Selling Data on 2.9 Billion Profiles of U.S. Residents Pegged as Actively Pregnant or Shopping for Maternity Products.” The write up reports:

A Gizmodo investigation into some of the nation’s biggest data brokers found more than two dozen promoting access to datasets containing digital information on millions of pregnant and potentially pregnant people across the country. At least one of those companies also offered a large catalogue of people who were using the same sorts of birth control that’s being targeted by more restrictive states right now. In total, Gizmodo identified 32 different brokers across the U.S. selling access to the unique mobile IDs from some 2.9 billion profiles of people pegged as “actively pregnant” or “shopping for maternity products.” Also on the market: data on 478 million customer profiles labeled “interested in pregnancy” or “intending to become pregnant.”

To add some zest to the write up, the “real news” outfit provided a link to 32 companies allegedly engaged in such data aggregation, normalization, and provision. Here are the 32 companies available from the gadget blogs link. Note sic means this is the actual company name. The trendy means very hip marketing.

123Push
Adprime Health
Adstra
Alike Audience
Anteriad (180byTwo)
Cross Pixel
Datastream Group
Dstillery (sic and trendy)
Epsilon
Experian
Eyeota (sic and trendy)
FieldTest
Fluent
Fyllo (sic)
LBDigital
Lighthouse (Ameribase Digital)
PurpleLab
Quotient
Reklaim (sic)
ShareThis
Skydeo
Stirista (Crosswalk) (sic)
TrueData
Valassis Digital
Weborama Inc
Ziff Davis
ZoomInfo (Clickagy)

How many of these do you recognize? Perhaps Experian, usually associated with pristine security practices and credit checks? What about Ziff Davis, the outfit which publishes blogs which reveal the inner workings of Microsoft and a number of other “insider” information? Or Zoom Info, an outfit once focused on executive information and now apparently identified as a source of information to make a pregnant teen fear the “parent talk”?

But the others? Most people won’t have a clue? Now keep in mind these are companies in the consumer information database business. Are there other firms with more imaginative sources of personal data than outfits poking around open source datasets, marketing companies with helpful log file data, and blossoming data scientists gathering information from retail outlets?

The answer is, “Yes, there are.”

That brings me to the building wave of NSO Group backlash. How does one bridge the gap between a government agency using NSO Group type tools and data?

The answer is that specialized software and services firms themselves are the building blocks, engineer-constructors, and architect-engineers of these important bridges.

So what’s the PR problem?

Each week interesting items of information surface. For example, cyber threat firms report new digital exploits. I read this morning about Cerebrate’s Redeemer. What’s interesting is that cyber threat firms provide software and services to block such malware, right? So the new threat appears to evade existing defense mechanisms. Isn’t this a circular proposition: Buy more cyber security. Learn about new threats. Ignore the fact that existing systems do not prevent the malware from scoring a home run? Iterate… iterate… iterate.

At some point, a “real news” outfit will identify the low profile engineers engaged in what might be called “flawed bridge engineering.”

Another PR problem is latent. People like the Kardashians are grousing about Instagram. What happens when influencers and maybe some intrepid “real journalists” push back against the firms collecting personal information very few people think of as enormously revelatory. Example: Who has purchased a “weapon” within a certain geofence? Or who has outfitted an RV with a mobile Internet rig? Or who has signed up for a Dark Web forum and accessed it with a made up user name?

Who provides these interesting data types?

The gadget blog is fixated on pregnancy because of the current news magnetism. Unfortunately the pursuit of clicks with what seems really significant does not provide much insight into the third party data businesses in the US, Israel, and other countries.

That’s the looming PR problem. Someone is going to step back and take a look at companies which do not want to become the subject of a gadget blog write up with a 30 plus word headline. In my opinion, that will happen, and that’s the reason certain third party data providers and specialized software and services firms face a crisis. These organizations have to sell to survive, except for a handful supported by their countries’ governments. If that marketing becomes too visible, then the gadget bloggers will out them.

What’s it mean when a cyber threat company hires a former mainstream media personality to bolster the company’s marketing efforts? I have some thoughts. Mine are colored by great sensitivity to the NSO Group and the allegations about its Pegasus specialized software. If these allegations are true, what better way to get personal data than suck it directly from a single target’s or group of targets’ mobile devices in real time?

Here are the chemical compounds in the data lab: The NSO Group-type technology which is increasingly understood and replicated. Gadget bloggers poking around data aggregators chasing ad and marketing service firms. Cyber threat companies trying to market themselves without being too visible.

The building wave is on the horizon, just moving slowly.

Stephen E Arnold, August 10, 2022

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