Trapwire: It's Not the Surveillance, It's the Sleaze

Trapwire: It's Not the Surveillance, It's the Sleaze | Danger Room

From Wired:

Ever since WikiLeaks began releasing a series of documents about the surveillance system Trapwire, there’s been a panicked outcry over this supposedly all-seeing, revolutionary spy network. In fact, there are any number of companies that say they comb through video feeds or suspicious activity reports in largely the same way that Trapwire claims to do. What’s truly extraordinary about Trapwire was how it was marketed by the private intelligence firm Stratfor, whose internal e-mails WikiLeaks exposed.

The documents show Stratfor being less than straight with its clients, using temporary jobs in government to set up Trapwire contracts, and calling it all a “wet dream.” In their e-mails, executives at Stratfor may have been hyping up a surveillance technology. But what they really did was provide reconnaissance on the $25 billion world of intelligence-for-hire that’s ordinarily hidden from public view. In this case, the sunlight isn’t particularly flattering.

. . .

On Aug. 17 of that year, Stratfor and Trapwire signed a contract (.pdf) giving Burton’s company an 8 percent referral fee for any business they send Trapwire’s way. The essay was partially a sales pitch — a fact that Burton neglected to mention.

When Wikileaks published the Stratfor files, I thought the whole thing was completely overblown and Wikileaks had acted criminally and irresponsibly. (Nuance here: Wikileaks almost always acts criminally, in a strict legal sense, but not always irresponsibly or immorally. I'm overall rather pleased with their release of the Iraq documents and videos, and while their handling of the State Dept. cables could have been better I think it had a net positive effect.) The release of private information was part of the damage here — a relative who subscribed (to the $99-a-year brief service, hardly an evil corporate behemoth) had his credit card details released out on the internet, which was predictably used for fraud. Not to mention the principle that a company like Stratfor, and its employees, have the right to confidentiality (and the duty to protect their data systems better.) But what really stank was the way Wikipedia tried to make an ordinary business and strategic intelligence service sound like SMERSH.

The hyping of Stratfor as an international spy service, which many fools on the web (and some in the media) ate up like candy, was utter bullshit. Stratfor is a publishing company that puts out a mixture of journalism, commentary and analysis within a strategic framework. I'm not at all sold on their intellectual model, which stresses geo-strategic principles rather over ground knowledge, but it's perfectly legitimate. So is using government contacts to get information; it's called cultivating sources.

The above story shows the worse thing Stratfor is guilty of: sleaze. It marketed a product to its customers on commission. I guess Wikileaks revealed that, but if it was a better journalistic enterprise it would have recognized that this was the story worth highlighting, not a fantasy about Stratfor's plans for world domination.

[Via Steve Hynd at the always excellent Agonist]

Update: Liberal Koshari dissents with my take on Wikileaks' criminality:

I fully disagree with an unusually simplistic and inaccurate statement he made in one of his recent posts: 

"Wikileaks almost always acts criminally, in a strict legal sense, but not always irresponsibly or immorally."

Many would disagree, and most conservatives would agree, with the statement above. The legality of Wikileaks activities is extremely complex and a matter of debate as some believe it is protected as a whistleblower intermediary and would argue, like in the Pentagon Papers, the Supreme Court established that the American constitution protects the re-publication of illegally gained information provided the publishers did not themselves break any laws in acquiring it. Back in 2010, publishing those leaked documents was not illegal which is why Senator Joe Lieberman has put forward his proposed SHIELD law (stands for Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination), which made it a crime to publish leaked classified information if doing so endangered U.S. agents or was otherwise not in the national interest.

Point taken about the ambiguous legality of disseminating documents, but what about the legality of obtaining them? Clearly the many US govt. documents were obtained either through sources that broke the law or military code (i.e. Bradley Manning case) or through hacking which was itself illegal. Ditto for the Syrian email trove — to obtain them, something had to be hacked, surely? Likewise in the Stratfor case, the hacking of the company's servers was criminal. 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.