Hacked emails from security contractor HBGary Federal reveal a disturbing public-private partnership to spy on web users
In February 2011, the hackers' collective Anonymous released 70,000 emails from security contractor HBGary Federal, which revealed that CEO Aaron Barr had offered the firm's services to mount cyber-attacks against WikiLeaks and others on behalf of corporate clients. Photograph: Getty Images
When President Eisenhower left office in 1960, he provided the American people with a warning.
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
Sixty years later, the military-industrial complex has been joined by another unprecedented centre of what has increasingly proven to be "misplaced power": the dozens of secretive firms known collectively as the intelligence contracting industry.
Last February, three of these firms – HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico, known collectively as Team Themis – were discovered to have conspired to hire out their information war capabilities to corporations which hoped to strike back at perceived enemies, including US activist groups, WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald. That such a dangerous new dynamic was now in play was only revealed due to a raid by hackers associated with the Anonymous collective, resulting in the dissemination of more than 70,000 emails to and from executives at HBGary Federal and affiliated company HBGary.
After having spent several months studying those emails and otherwise investigating the industry depicted therein, I have revealed my summary of a classified US intelligence programme known as Romas/COIN, as well as its upcoming replacement, known as Odyssey. The programme appears to allow for the large-scale monitoring of social networks by way of such things as natural language processing, semantic analysis, latent semantic indexing and IT intrusion. At the same time, it also entails the dissemination of some unknown degree of information to a given population through a variety of means – without any hint that the actual source is US intelligence. Scattered discussions of Arab translation services may indicate that the programme targets the Middle East.
Despite the details I have provided in the document – which is also now in the possession of several major news outlets and which may be published in whole or in part by any party that cares to do so – there remains a great deal that is unclear about Romas/COIN and the capabilities it comprises. The information with which I've worked consists almost entirely of email correspondence between executives of several firms that together sought to win the contract to provide the programme's technical requirements, and because many of the discussions occurred in meetings and phone conversations, the information remaining deals largely with prospective partners, the utility of one capability over another, and other clues spread out over hundreds of email exchanges between a large number of participants.
The significance of this programme to the public is not limited to its potential for abuse by facets of the US intelligence community, which has long been proverbial for misusing other of its capabilities. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect is the fact that the partnership of contracting firms and other corporate entities that worked to obtain the contract was put into motion in large part by Aaron Barr, the disgraced former CEO of HBGary Federal who was at the centre of Team Themis's conspiracy to put high-end intelligence capabilities at the disposal of private institutions. As I explain further in the linked report, this fact alone should prompt increased investigation into the manner in which this industry operates and the threats it represents to democratic institutions.
Altogether, the existence and nature of Romas/COIN should confirm what many had already come to realise over the past few years, in particular: the US and other states have no intention of allowing populations to conduct their affairs without scrutiny. Such states ought not complain when they find themselves subjected to similar scrutiny – as will increasingly become the case over the next several years.
• Editor's note: The headline and photo caption in this article originally alluded to HBGary. HBGary Federal is the company in question, which is a distinct entity from HBGary Inc. The article has been amended to make that clarification at 9am (BST) on 23 June 2011