The massive document dump reveals a troubling trend the mainstream media has overlooked: Tech companies monetizing criminal surveillance.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I never get tired of saying, this show has a single purpose with a twist, we aim to hold cops accountable of course, but we don’t want to just let the system which bolsters bad policing off the hook. I’m talking about the economic inequality and racial bias that not only make bad policing possible but necessary. Today we’re going to take a deep dive into a story that speaks to both issues. It’s a cache of internal law enforcement documents known as BlueLeaks. Paperwork that reveals internal techniques and troubling trends in our ever expansive police state.
But we’re not just going to review the documents, we’re going to delve into an aspect of the paper trail that has received less attention. But quickly before we begin, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at email@example.com, and we might be able to investigate. And please like, and share, and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments, appreciate them, and of course you can message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter. Okay. We’ve got that out of the way. Now, before I get into the BlueLeaks cache, I want to jog your memory a little bit.
Remember him? His name is Edward Snowden, and back in June of 2013, the former NSA contractor released a huge cache of documents that revealed how the country’s national security cabal had reached far beyond the boundaries set by the Constitution to delve into the lives of ordinary Americans. But to us there was an aspect of Snowden’s landmark reveal that received less attention that is even more relevant today. Even though it was billed as an overreach of the nation’s burgeoning security state, it was also a watershed moment in the collaboration between the twin provincialisms that drive many of the problems we discuss regularly on this show, policing and capitalism.
That’s because as you may recall, Snowden was making 122,000 per year working for the private contractor whose documents he exposed, which brings us to the BlueLeaks document dump. It’s a cache taken from a server used by a contractor intimately involved in both American law enforcement and Homeland Security. This treasure trove of information was leaked in June, as protests were flaring up, and published with the help of Anonymous hacktivists and the hacktivist group Distributed Denial of Secrets. The documents cover a wide range of topics, from security alerts based upon information found on people’s Facebook pages as we’ve already discussed, to helping people working in law enforcement hide their social media presence from the public.
There are also documents tied to a Homeland Security infrastructure that has received more attention since federal police arrested and detained protesters in Portland, Fusion Centers. Fusion Centers are regional spokes in the country’s troubling Homeland Security surveillance system. They were intended to synthesize intelligence from local and federal law enforcement ostensibly to catch terrorists. But as we’ve seen in the trove of documents it has recently been aimed at American citizens exercising their constitutional right to protest. But the reason we’re talking about these documents today is that they reveal an aspect of law enforcement that we have discussed before, but now seems more relevant than ever, and that is just how easily policing can monetize almost every facet of our lives.
I mean if you look at the documents we are showing you on the screen, many are created by private contractors, and as you look at the scope of the report and the PowerPoints you realize there’s an entire invisible landscape of contractors and private firms cashing in on the growth of surveillance and the policing of our communications. To discuss just how broad this issue is and what it means, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Now, first you reviewed the documents, what did you see and what stood out to you?
Stephen Janis: What stood out to me is how little it seems like law enforcement knows about social media, but how eager it is to get into the game of monitoring social media. If you look at document, after PowerPoint, after PowerPoint, it’s all about getting into social media, getting into people’s social media accounts, monitoring their Facebook, criminalizing it, and then monetizing it. So it’s really an interesting sort of look at the depth of how law enforcement is looking at social media as the next great frontier to criminalize people.
Taya Graham: Now, we’ve talked about how much this paperwork translates into money. What do these documents represent and who is getting rich?
Stephen Janis: That is a fascinating question about it. There’s so little data out about how much these contractors are making and how much this industry has grown. I can give you one example. Amazon has about 230 defense contracts, and Google has about 130 defense and federal law enforcement contracts. But federal law enforcement has grown to such a degree since the beginning of Homeland Security and since 911 that it’s really hard to get a handle on it. Supposedly it’s like 60,000 new officers, and all these officers need training, and all these officers need PowerPoints, so it’s something that we’re going to keep working on, but at this point I can’t give you a number.
Taya Graham: Finally, I wanted to check in with you regarding comments from the federal authorities about the documents, and if they will confirm or respond to any questions about them.
Stephen Janis: We have gone back and forth with the FBI. I’ve reached out to several people in the FBI and have yet to get an answer if any of these documents are authentic, especially when we have showing an FBI agent allegedly monitoring a Facebook post and reporting for possible criminal activity. It is really, really difficult. I have gone back and forth. I’ve asked. I’ve sent them screenshots of documents. As I said before, the only question they’ve asked me is, “Where did you get these,” a question which I’m not willing to answer.
Taya Graham: Now, we aren’t just going to talk about the spreadsheets and PDFs that some have said represent the biggest document dump in the history of law enforcement. Instead, to gain even more perspective, we’re going to talk to a person who has worked from the inside of the tech security industry and is willing to share its secrets. We call him Friends in Code, and he’s been a guest on the show before. He has real-world experience working in security and technology and is willing to discuss what goes on behind the scenes save a single caveat, we don’t reveal his identity. Friends in Code, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate it. So let’s start with the basics. What is BlueLeaks, how big of a leak is it, and what does it mean?
Friends in Code: It’s not as big as say what Snowden did. There’s a lot of interesting information in here. The biggest thing to me is the mud in the face to the poor nerd that let this happen. You know, your one job was to protect this data, and guess what? You’ve failed. There are books that tell you how to take care of this, and as third parties I mean this is, again, why it’s so important to actually at least be able to throw a bullshit flag. You know, you don’t have to completely understand it, but you have to understand its principles.
Taya Graham: What range of documents have people seen? What is the scope?
Friends in Code: I mean there’s email addresses. There’s all kinds of IP addresses. It’s a full-on leak. The interesting thing is, it looks like one large web server to me. It has a bunch of folders for all the individual agencies or groups that were using the service. From my perspective, the scope is all over the place. I’ve seen everything from somebody monitoring social media, to CSV files that look like database dumps, PDF files, Excel files in here where it literally … And that’s just the file-type scope. That’s not even what you’re getting from trying to piece it together, what’s actually in the file types.
Taya Graham: Are you surprised at what you’re seeing from these documents in terms of how Homeland Security is prepared to police local communities?
Friends in Code: I mean that’s federal [inaudible 00:07:57] stuff. They could do that all along. We’ve been seeing it ever since we started before Snowden. I mean Snowden accelerated, showed what acceleration looks like. This is showing what acceleration to the state and local levels look like. Yeah. I’m not surprised. The boogeymans in the little unmarked vans. Yeah, I’m very aware that those guys exist, and whether or not they’re actually sanctioned to do it, I don’t know. Today we’re living in a fear-based society.
Taya Graham: Now, we’ve seen a series of cases criminalizing Facebook posts. Do you also expect this trend to accelerate?
Friends in Code: The technology to have this kind of surveillance has never really scared me. You know, I just understood this is what’s available, this is what’s out there. That’s why it doesn’t really scare me, man. It was programmed by a human. It was secured by a human. It means it could be broke by a human.
Taya Graham: How lucrative is this glimpse of the law enforcement industrial complex we’re seeing in these documents? How much money is it generating?
Friends in Code: When you work in the fear industry, it’s very lucrative. It’s because you’re selling them the fear that they want to know, and so if you can shape, and it’s not even really shape the data. I mean anybody that’s taken any kind of statistics understands that depending on how you ask the question the statistics will show what the question wants, so you have to be very careful about those kind of things.
But all in all, when you were doing video surveillance, it wasn’t unusual to have large markups, especially if you knew that you were taking care of something big. You know, high rise would require a little bit more because you’re having to pull cables in this or whatever it may be. But you were still able to sell some of the same equipment to mom and pop for a lot less, because they didn’t need as much recording or whatever it might be. But when you’re selling fear you know, fear sells.
Taya Graham: Now the inner workings of the American law enforcement industrial complex reveals something disturbing about the imperative of policing in this country that cannot be emphasized enough, the rhetoric and platitudes about public safety and communal wellbeing seem hollow in the face of just how much it costs. I mean how much are we paying an FBI agent to troll someone’s Facebook page and write a report about it? How much are we forking over to consultants to help cops keep their social media profiles secret? And one can assume along with payouts comes a need for results, meaning eventually the people creating and using all these documents and planning the Fusion Centers are expected to produce something.
In this case, as we’ve seen, it appears in part the process demands arrests, stats that indicate how many bodies all the PowerPoints and PDFs have delivered to our insatiable carceral state. It’s another example of the transactional nature of capitalism once again incentivizing criminal justice. In other words, how many protesters can be monitored, detained, or otherwise charged and arrested? And how much do we have to pay to become a data point turned into a cash cow for cops and consultants?
Consider the case of Georgana Sziszak. Recently the New Jersey resident started a GoFundMe page. Why? To raise money for her defense’s charges related to a retweet. That’s right. According to a GoFundMe campaign, she was charged by the State of New Jersey with a fourth-class felony because she retweeted the picture of an officer who a friend had said threatened him. We reached out to Georgana, but we have yet to get a response. We also spoke to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office who said they’re not involved.
But as I stated at the beginning of the show, what we see in the BlueLeaks document dump is how capitalism has found yet another way of doing what it does best, monetize and incentivize bad public policy. It’s bad enough that social media platforms like Facebook have turned fear into a currency of wealth and influence, how hidden algorithms exploit our polarized politics and growing distrust to fix our gazes at the behest of corporate sponsors. The aforementioned formula has birthed so many billionaires the practice itself has earned its own moniker, surveillance capitalism. And now through the BlueLeaks dump we have learned that law enforcement is looking for a piece of the action.
It’s interesting that in a country that arrests millions of people a year in tactile space, virtual space would become fertile ground for carceral growth. That a nation which jails more people than any other on Earth would seek to mine our avatars for arrests. Of course, didn’t the French philosopher Foucault warn us about this? Not just as theories about Bentham’s panopticon, the universal concept prison where all of us are to be housed and observed, the space where privacy is impossible, and the human psyche is open to political dissection.
But there’s an even more relevant idea in his book, Discipline and Punish. In it he discusses how physical control over our bodies combined with the symbolism of power prepares us for other types of psychological dominance. He recounts public executions in the 17th century replete with the symbols of the king as an earlier example of this formula, or how military training imposes a strict regime on our bodies as a precursor to the broader imposition of the power of the state over our minds.
Isn’t it interesting that policing has found a way to turn our Facebook musings and Twitter rants into a veritable panopticon to monitor our playfulness, how law enforcement industrial complex is aiming to turn a platform for free expression into a minefield of subjugation and constraint? That in a sense by creating and then surveilling platforms of fear, the power to constrain both our psyches and bodies have grown in ways we could never have imagined.
This is a cautionary tale that is told through the documents exposed in the leak. That if we do not put limits on the power to surveil, the incentive to watch coupled with the ability to do so unfettered, we will build a new American prison of the mind. I want to thank my guest,
Friends in Code, for joining us and being so forthcoming about what goes on behind the scenes of a data dump and how secure our data really is. Thank you, Friends in Code.
Friends in Code: Appreciate you all having me back.
Taya Graham: I also have to thank intrepid reporter, Stephen Janis, for his investigative work, writing, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And of course I would be remiss if I did not thank friend of the show, Noli Dee, for her support. Thanks Noli Dee. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us @policeaccountabilityreport on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course you can message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please like and comment. You know I read your comments, appreciate them, and I try to answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.
Host & Producer
Before joining TRNN as an investigative journalist, Taya worked in Baltimore’s neighborhoods of color for years as an advocate and was awarded the Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Torchbearer Award and YANA’s (You Are Never Alone) “Love in Action” award. Her years of outreach to underserved communities have uniquely prepared her to connect with city residents. Now she cultivates relationships with Baltimore’s citizens to cover the stories on the ground.