A private company is turning a profit by surveilling people online and then selling valuable information to law enforcement and government agencies.
According to The Washington Post, the company, Babel Street, offers “a subscription called Babel X” which trawls through “some 40 online sources, scooping up data from popular sites such as Instagram and a Korean social media platform as well as inside ‘dark Web’ forums where cybercriminals lurk.”
The Pentagon was the subscription’s first customer, and some users pay more than $20,000 a year to use the service.
“Police departments investigating a crime might use the service to scan posts linked to a certain neighborhood over a specified period of time. Stadium managers use it to hunt for security threats based on electronic chatter,” they explained. “The Department of Homeland Security, county governments, law enforcement agencies and the FBI use it to keep tabs on dangerous individuals, even when they are communicating in one of more than 200 languages, including emoji.”
Babel Street, which is comprised of around 100 employees, including former government intelligence workers, is reportedly profitable in its third year and “recently took on $2.25 million from investors, bringing its total capital raised from investors to just over $5 million.”
The practice, however, has prompted privacy concerns, including from organizations such as the ACLU.
“These products can provide a very detailed picture of a person’s private life,” claimed ACLU Lawyer Matt Cagle. Babel Street reportedly “does not access individuals’ people’s Facebook profiles, though the company’s executives say they have ‘a close relationship with Facebook.'”
Privacy standards are used at the company, according to the report, and Jeff Chapman, Babel Street’s founder and a former Navy intelligence officer, claimed, “If someone has arrest powers, they get less access to the data than other customers.”
“We are seeing emoji increasingly used to get around text analysis,” continued Chapman. “Guys that want to be nefarious in their activities will use things like emoji to communicate with each other.”
Recent uses of the company’s service included training “its Web crawlers to look for people stranded in Houston’s floodwaters or waiting out Hurricane Irma in Florida.”
“They are tracking online scammers that might try to profit from the disaster,” The Washington Post added, before Chapman claimed their service “will one day be just as important to first responders as 9-1-1 phone lines.”
“There are billions of smartphones on the planet,” he concluded. “All you have to do is listen to them.”