“I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president if I had a personal email.” —Edward Snowden, Booz Allen Hamilton whistleblower, during his interview with The Guardian.
Could the sprawling surveillance state enable government or its legion of private contractors to abuse their technology and spy upon domestic political targets or judges?
This is not a far off possibility. Two years ago, a batch of stolen e-mails revealed a plot by a set of three defense contractors (Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal) to target activists, reporters, labor unions and political organizations. The plans— one concocted in concert with lawyers for the US Chamber of Commerce to sabotage left-leaning critics, like the Center for American Progress and the SEIU, and a separate proposal to “combat” WikiLeaks and its supporters, including Glenn Greenwald, on behalf of Bank of America— fell apart after reports of their existence were published online. But the episode serves as a reminder that the expanding spy industry could use its government-backed cybertools to harm ordinary Americans and political dissident groups.
The episode also shows that Greenwald, who helped Snowden expose massive spying efforts in the United States, had been targetted by spy agency contractors in the past for supporting whistleblowers and WikiLeaks.
Firms like Palantir—a Palo Alto–based business that helps intelligence agencies analyze large sets of data—exist because of the government’s post-9/11 rush to develop a “terror-detection leviathan” of high-tech companies. Named after a stone in the Lord of the Rings that helps both villains and do-gooders see over great distances, the company is well-known within Silicon Valley for attracting support from a venture capital group led by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel and Facebook’s Sean Parker. But Palantir’s rise to prominence, now reportedly valued at $8 billion, came from initial investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, and close consultation with officials from the intelligence-gathering community, including disgraced retired admiral John Poindexter and Bryan Cunningham, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice.
While Palantir boasts that its government-backed technology is geared towards helping the military track terrorists, stolen e-mails from HBGary Federal show the firm and its senior executives were eager to use its platform on behalf of the Chamber, one of the largest corporate lobbying associations. In the fall of 2010, the Chamber had received unflattering attention, first from a New York Times piece about allegedly laundered money from AIG, and then from my reporting at the Center for American Progress’ ThinkProgress blog about foreign funds flowing to the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) entity used to run campaign advertisements. The Chamber’s attorneys at the firm Hunton & Williams, at the time already busy prosecuting a group of activists for impersonating the Chamber, sought out the help of Palantir to develop a team to go after the Chamber’s critics. As I reported later for TheNation.com, Palantir eventually connected with Berico and HBGary Federal, and along with the Chamber’s attorneys, the group began plotting a campaign of snooping on activists’ families and even using sophisticated hacking tools to break into computers: