Privacy SOS

Their big government contracts, our privacy nightmare

The first in a series on the Wikileaks Spyfiles.

University of California San Diego students and faculty might be surprised to learn that their school has an "advanced technology research" relationship with a corporation engaged in extensive Internet snooping. 

Glimmerglass was founded in 2000 in the Sillicon Valley and describes its activities like this:

Glimmerglass develops and integrates optical cyber solutions to derive actionable information from thousands of optical signals. These advanced solutions dramatically reduce complexity and enhance monitoring. Glimmerglass delivers optical cyber solutions to its global customers in Cyber Security, Intelligence and Defense, and Telecom Network Monitoring.

In other words, Glimmerglass helps the government and private companies target online surveillance and monitoring, granting spooks better access to our private data. It also helps telecommunications companies filter, monitor and direct internet traffic on their own systems. That means the same firm is working for both the companies that move our data, and the government agencies that want to intercept and spy on it. That's a great business plan — and a privacy disaster.

Glimmerglass and other spy companies are quick to note that their snooping tools are only used for "Lawful Interception," but that simplicity belies a much more complicated and ugly reality. 

The reality is more complicated because the company's clients include privacy-destroying class acts like the US military — an institution notorious among privacy advocates for its illegal-turned-immunized warrantless wiretapping program at the NSA. 

Furthermore, even if the monitoring is "lawful" to the degree that it conforms with the US military's or the FBI's internal guidelines, that doesn't mean the monitoring is Constitutional. As you probably know, a wide spectrum of questionably or outright unconstitutional policies and laws have been enacted over the past ten years. 

In a context wherein the FBI can snoop on us without warrants or even reasonable suspicion that we've committed a crime, we need to be highly skeptical of any "Lawful Intercept" claim.

Mapping your social networks, analyzing your emails

What does Glimmerglass' technology actually do for the US intelligence community, the State Department, military and private contractors like Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and General Dynamics?

sales presentation for a Glimmerglass product called "CyberSweep" provides some answers.

The "optical signals" referenced above include both mobile and fixed phone and web data transmitted via satellite and undersea cable, and data harvested directly from telecommunications switching centers. The process must be very convenient for Glimmerglass, because among its clients are the very telecom companies that operate switching facilities, like Amsix and Interroute.

So what kind of data can Glimmerglass suck up out of the ether, without affecting bandwith speeds, so that the target will never notice? Some examples include email, text, internet and phone calls, in real time.

The great subpoena workaround

We've written a lot about prosecutor and police abuse of administrative subpoena statutes, which grant the government access to our private information without any judicial oversight. The subpoena system is too secretive and unaccountable, but some companies — like Twitter — provide notice to users when they are targets of government investigations. Glimmerglass technology creates a workaround.

Why would the FBI bother to ask Twitter for your personal data and risk exposure of its investigation when the agency could simply use a tool like Glimmerglass to harvest the data straight from your internet connection? If the cops just use a tool like Glimmerglass to get at your Twitter direct messages or IP logons, you'll likely never know.

Even creepier, Glimmerglass technology comes with data mining and organizing tools that enable spooks to see your social networks and private data in ways we can't even imagine — even though the information is about us, describing and mapping out our private lives. (Click images below to enlarge.)

But that's not all. The software provides mechanisms whereby agents can analyze, track and sort your email, webchats, Skype traffic, and mobile phone conversations. 

Government doesn't care about your privacy

We wouldn't need to worry so much about these extremely advanced snooping technologies if it weren't for the fact that our electronic communications privacy law was passed before the internet practically existed, or that US intelligence agencies have encouraged their agents to break the meager protective statutes that do exist. 

Unfortunately, we live in a world wherein the government doesn't even pretend to care about our privacy. In this world, tools like Glimmerglass' "CyberSweep" enable privacy nightmares.

Read more about data-mining and electronic surveillance.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.