In early August, WikiLeaks released another cluster of the 5 million e-mails it obtained in late 2011 from Stratfor, a private intelligence agency Barron’s has called “The Shadow CIA.” The first batch had been made public early this year, revealing, in the Guardian’s words, “not simply the military-industrial complex that conspires to spy on citizens, activists and trouble-causers, but the extremely low quality of the information available to the highest bidder.” Among the most intriguing items disclosed in the latest document dump was the existence of a spooky-sounding company called TrapWire, sparking an online uproar among surveillance researchers and transparency advocates. The e-mails describe TrapWire as a surveillance system so advanced, so networked and intelligent, that it can sniff out threats to critical infrastructure before they materialize—a ‘pre-crime’ detection technology. Surveillance watchers rang the alarm: TrapWire, they warned, is the constellation of our greatest fears.
Undermining the excitement were other e-mails, showing that Stratfor had struck a deal to aggressively promote TrapWire to its intelligence, military and law enforcement clients, in exchange for an 8 percent cut of any resulting sales. This arrangement appeared to pay off, particularly in Texas. In one e-mail, Fred Burton, vice president for intelligence, boasted that he “wrote the plans for eventual TrapWire roll-out Statewide, in addition to the Texas State Capital.” In another, he speculated on the profits his company might reap in the event of a terrorist attack in Texas. “Positive developments continue with TrapWire in light of the Texas State Capital shooting,” he wrote, referring to an incident in 2010 that had prompted the state to increase security. “…We should see the system roll out fairly soon.” Perhaps most disturbingly, one company employee implored Burton to deploy TrapWire against activists in San Francisco: “Regarding SF landmarks of interest—they need something like Trapwire more for threats from activists than from terror threats. Both are useful, but the activists are ever present around here,” she wrote.
A central, oft-cited claim put forth to buttress the worst-case scenario pronouncements about TrapWire comes from an interview with the founder of the company that produced it, who said the technology is “more accurate than facial recognition.” A storm of speculation followed the discovery of this statement, one unproven allegation among many that would fill a series of articles resting on the claims of other private intelligence executives with a financial incentive to cast their product as all-powerful. Headlines included: “Wikileaks: Americans Being Monitored By Top Secret Surveillance System ‘TrapWire,’” “TrapWire tied to White House, Scotland Yard, M15 and others,” and “WIKILEAKS: Surveillance Cameras Around The Country Are Being Used In Huge Spy Network.” Reports warned that the system had been “installed…across the U.S. under the radar of most Americans.”
Adding to the intrigue, information on the TrapWire, Inc. website began mysteriously disappearing, including the page listing the names and biographies of top executives at the firm. This followed a strange press release from Cubic Corporation, a defense, intelligence and transportation services firm that bought TrapWire’s parent company in 2010, announcing: “Cubic Corporation Has No Affiliation with TrapWire, Inc.” (A true statement, although the company retained the trademarks for a number of products related to the sale until June 2011, including TrapWire.) What did the company have to hide? And why would a billion-dollar company move so quickly to distance itself from TrapWire?