Spys and donors

open | 15 June, 2013

In the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden's capture the problematic intersection between espionage and development was laid bare.

With the increased success of the drone program the ambiguity escalated.

With the disclosure that the US National Intelligence Agency is
spying on the whole world through a back door to the worlds leading
internet companies, all American,  makes suspicions of spy's and donors
take on a new dimension yet again.

Western development agencies stand accused by the Taliban and Al Qaeda,
but by no means not only by fundamentalists, of letting themselves being
used - intentionally or not - as sniffer dogs for the spy masters.

Escalating cyber space warfare by the west - the Chinese version does
not stick somehow in this context, they are more interested in industrial
secret it seems - simply strengthens the perception that there is such a
link, real or not.

It leaves aid- and health workers in places like Pakistan in a even
more vulnerable position. They are - post the confirmation that the US
is scanning private e-mails on a global scale - at greater risk of
ending up in the line of fire and of being accused of skulduggery.

From a global egalitarian point of view such fundamentalists to
strike against humanitarian workers - and help them to achieve their
ultimate ends, to open up a religiously justified gulf and force people
to take sides.

The NSA's access to global internet companies means it has access also to private mail by global development workers.

International development agencies, such as UN organisations, are more
than likely to be tapped. To protest is necessary but almost futile. If
intelligence agencies believe they can justify the ends by the means,
that is g.g. to save many times more people from a planned terror attack
they believe they can stop, they will undoubtedly do it, again and
again.

The information this past week by the Guardian and the Washington Post
that the National Security Agency keeps a watchful eye over virtually
the entire world via the internet comes as no surprise. Nor that the
leading web companies on the planet, all of which are covered by U.S.
laws - among them Google (incl Youtube), Facebook, Microsoft (incl
Skype), Apple, and Yahoo.

The surprise is rather that there is now evidence of the mind-bobbling
scope of US security monitoring, revealed by whistle blower Edward
Snowden, a former contract employee of the NSA.

It may not stop there. Mr. Snowden made the world aware that the NSA is
using a software called Prism, for making their online monitoring.

He explained how Prism, according to Snowden, is capable of linking on
just about anybody, be it five times removed from prime suspects through
the net, cell phone calls, location, you name it.

Another level of risk for development agencies has been revealed in
techie- and intelligence media. That is about identifying who is NSA's
prime software suppliers and the client list of such companies.

The company which repeatedly has popped up as NSA's prime supplier is
Palo Alto based Palantir (we first wrote about Palantir in April).
Palantir is a well known entity in the tech press and is known, and
itself markets itself as such, for supplying the kind of platforms as
NSA's Prism software.

While Palantir's spokesperson denies any link or that the Prism product
had anything to do with NSA. He stated it was pure co-incidence. Others
point out that Palantir has a history with the CIA, which supplied
start-up funding for Palantir nine years ago. The rumour mill is not
likely to stop as the company does not disclose  the size of its orders,
client list or financing, in other words who is paying for its 250 plus
staff.

Palantir has reason to deny NSA links. It is busy building a reputation
as a good guy and signed a deal with the Clinton Global Initiative last
February on the back of its highly praised work during hurricane Sandy.
Through the Palantir platform tens of thousand of data coming in hourly
was made sense of and fast action could be taken both before, during and
after Sandy.

The thing is, Palantir's platform isn't only excellent for chasing down
drug traffickers - which it has done - or terrorists - which the
company' says it is not involved in - but also to minimise the damage
during disasters, not the least in developing countries where good data
is sparse but where 'big data' derived from cell phone users and the
internet are plentiful.

The complexity and importance of using software to analyse vast amounts
of daily 'big data' is undeniably large. Edward Sneddon disclosed that
United States share the world's countries into three categories,
including Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the highest category. In
one month alone 15 billion searches were processed on Iran.

Palantir, not the only supplier of this sort of software but one of maybe a handful, says about its platform:

"Prism is a software component that lets you quickly integrate external
databases into Palantir. Specifically, it lets you build
high-performance Data Engine based providers without writing any code.
Instead, you define simple configuration files and then Palantir
automatically constructs the data provider and database code for you.
This ensures that all data access goes through well tested,
high-performance code paths. Also, you can iterate more quickly because
you can modify and reload Prism-based data providers without restarting
the server."

A version of the platform is also used by Wall Street investment banks. 
There are many ways to use the platform for humanitarian assistance,
e.g. to identify potential hunger areas and send supplies before the
situation is acute, find out if cell-phone users are dropping their
pre-pay instalments which can indicate hardship and as such possible
increase in malnutrition among children, or to analyse where in the
societal underbelly where petty-corruption flourishes the most.
So indeed, with the ability to crunch data in a new way, the more and
larger software, the better accuracy. Transparently used in a democratic
system data can become a down-up tool  (although it would be naive to
think that those at the top of such information are always those who are
in control).
As everyone under US surveillance - the whole world! - are trying to
reassure themselves of what is going on, the undeniable truth is, there
is no turning back. The promise of using fast processing of data to
create order in a chaotic situation, or even be able to minimise chaos
is out of the bottle. The only way forward is to try and bring cyber
wars and cyber technology under democratic scrutiny. 

Development and human crisis organisations such as Unhcr, WFP, Unicef
and the Red Cross will just need to be very careful in vetting and do
thorough due diligence before they choose their data partners.
That spy's are crawling all over them is not new. Graham Greene has
built a whole litterature genre on it. But the NSA story most certainly
have made everyone think again.

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