Late in December of 2011, the incognito “hacktivist” group, Anonymous, broke into the servers of Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (commonly referred to as Stratfor) a private, global intelligence analysis company based in Austin, TX, stealing corporate email, along with other data such as credit card numbers. Some of these emails were sent to the international whistle-blowing organization, WikiLeaks – directed by the now infamous Julian Assange – who started publishing them in 2012. WikiLeaks started a gradual public exposure of the emails, claiming to have close to five million emails hacked from Stratfor.
As a result of Stratfor’s exposure, a controversial security company called TrapWire, Inc., selling security software of the same name, was also pushed into the limelight. According to an RT.com report, TrapWire is the brain-child of a furtive security intelligence company called Abraxas Applications, Inc., headquartered in Northern Virginia. The recent exposé has thrown both TrapWire and Abraxas into the media, shedding light on the latter organization’s brow-raising membership and controversial surveillance tactics.
Abraxas’ employees include ex-CIA members and security officials boasting strong ties to the federal government’s intelligence community, Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security. While the company offers clients a slew of services – including data collection, fraud investigation, competitive market intelligence, and political, economic and security assessment – other, more sophisticated services have been reportedly used by Abraxas and TrapWire. The private intelligence firm works hand-in-hand with citizen suspicion reporting programs such as “See Something, Say Something” in New York and Las Vegas, as well as iWatch in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. These reports are analyzed, compared with suspicious reports from other cities and then forwarded to law enforcement agencies, including to Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers. These tactics have enabled intelligence agencies to collaborate and effectively communicate the development of a threat to the nation’s security.
TrapWire’s official website claims its unique technology can “detect patterns of behavior indicative of pre-operational planning,” thwarting potential terrorist threats and attacks. The company’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, through audio and video surveillance, are perhaps more savvy than one may think. In internal emails recently disclosed by WikiLeaks, Fred Burton, Stratfor’s Vice President of Intelligence, shared that the program has the technology to track suspects through the use of modern facial recognition software via CCTV cameras installed in major cities from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C.
Anonymous, who initially released the emails, claims that TrapWire has access to virtually all CCTV cameras with Internet capabilities. The online pirate also referred to TrapWire as an “electric brain,” claiming that the company’s methods were “monstrous and Orwellian.” Other reports that could not be verified concluded that TrapWire’s system may also be able to access stoplight cameras on city streets, capturing a combination of suspect location, driver’s license information and facial recognition. The data can then be fused with other personal information such as credit card history and even social network activity, as it is processed through the company’s “threat assessment system.”
In a recent press report, TrapWire claimed the software is only used for preventative anti-terror security measures and that no civilian personal information is recorded in their system. Some are skeptical. Claims have been made that the company’s board of ex-CIA officials illegally collaborate with the CIA to spy on citizens and that TrapWire’s tactics, as an invasion of privacy, negate the Fourth Amendment.
So, are TrapWire’s tactics jeopardizing our constitutional freedoms? In an exclusive interview with “The Suit,” attorney and political powerhouse Anthony Difruscia addressed some concerns. “This TrapWire concept is really walking a gray line. I think it (surveillance) has to be regulated and I believe that before you start shooting cameras, a court should approve or disapprove of it,” said Difruscia. “I think people have to be paying more attention to the personal right of privacy,” he added. Difruscia noted that while it is not required, it would be proper to put a sign up to notify pedestrians in a public area that they are being monitored.
Anti-terrorist surveillance and threat prevention are for the greater good of the people. But how far can security companies go to reach that goal? “If it’s (TrapWire) in the private neighborhoods there is no real 'public good' argument that you can come up with. I think it’s improper to do it in the neighborhoods as opposed to a high visibility street like Wall Street,” Difruscia told “The Suit.”
Besides cloaking itself in the obvious secrecy of an intelligence firm, the TrapWire development is shrouded in mystery and mayhem. A short time after WikiLeaks posted the hacked emails, the notorious whistle-blower’s website was paralyzed by DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks. These attacks, flooding WikiLeaks’ servers with over 40 gigabytes of traffic per second, have been attributed to AntiLeaks – an online group condemning Assange and his tactics. TrapWire’s website also removed information about its clients from their website after RT.com published its initial report in August 2012.
The New York City Police Department has been scrutinized after it was reported that they deployed TrapWire’s technology in city streets and subways. In a leaked email from 2011, Stratfor’s Burton wrote in regard to NYPD’s counter-terrorism efforts, “Note their TrapWire intuitive video surveillance capabilities. NYPD has done what no US Govt. Agency has been able to do in the CT (counter-terrorism) arena.” Others point to the NYPD’s questionable surveillance tactics on Muslims in the New York and New Jersey areas, as it poses possible links to TrapWire technology. Representatives from both NYPD and Abraxas refused to comment on the inquiries due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Aside from our obvious discomfort at having law enforcement and private intelligence agencies possibly watching our every move, this use of surveillance sheds light on a separate issue. If, in fact, TrapWire is employed by the federal government, it raises questions about government spending. Should Uncle Sam be funneling sorely needed taxpayer dollars back into efforts to spy on them (meaning “us”) or should a more practical and focused approach toward monitoring potential cells and terrorist threats be used?
In a public poll of this development, “The Suit” asked citizens of New York how they felt about the little-known intelligence company potentially spying on New Yorkers. Over 30% said they had no problem with law enforcement taking a “gloves off” approach and using every possible measure to thwart terrorist activities, while 100% expressed concerns about personal information being used for marketing purposes.
In today’s age of information, knowledge is power. Thanks to whistle-blowing groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, diplomatic intelligence as well as government and corporate secrets have become public knowledge, as they come under the proverbial microscope. This can be harmful, and other means need to be implemented to ensure transparency within the socioeconomic and political spectrum. We cannot afford another 9/11. At the same time, appropriate action needs to be put in place to assure both the security of Americans and their confidence in government.
Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Fertitta Entertainment, Inc. and Jim Ackerman, executive vice president of
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