The EFF has made a full transcription of the entire 2019 Pioneer Awards available here.
Video of Brian Hofer’s speech on YouTube here.
The EFF has made a full transcription of the entire 2019 Pioneer Awards available here.
Video of Mike Katz-Lacabe’s speech on YouTube here.
So I first have to confess I’m not just a member of the EFF. I’m also a client. Thank you to Mitch Stoltz and your team for making sure that public records that I unearth remain available on the Internet for others to see.
So as Nash said, Oakland Privacy’s strength comes not just from the citizens that volunteer as part of its group, but also from the coalitions that we build. And certainly every victory that is credited to us is the result of many, many other coalition members, whether in some cases it’s the EFF or the ACLU or local neighborhood activists. It’s really a coalition of people that makes us stronger and helps us get the things done that sometimes we not always deservedly get as much credit for. So I want to make sure to call out those other groups and to recognize that their work is important as well and critical for us.
My work for Oakland Privacy comes from the belief that only from transparency can you have oversight, and from oversight derives accountability. So many examples of technology that have been acquired and used by law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area were never known about by the city councils that oversaw those police agencies.
In the city of Oakland, it was seven years after the city of Oakland acquired its stingray cell site simulator that the city of Oakland and the city council became aware of the use of that device by the police. In my city, I live in San Leandro, it was five years before the city council became aware of our city’s use of license plate readers and a very notorious photo of me getting out of my car that was taken by a passing license plate reader got published on the Internet.
We do our best work when working together. That’s been said. Let me give you … speaking of stories, I’ll take take off from Adam’s talk here. For example, recently journalist Caroline Haskins obtained a bunch of documents pertaining to Ring, you may know the Ring doorbell, and its relationship with police departments. A post about a party that Ring held at the International Association of Chiefs of Police meeting with basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, where each attendee got five free Ring doorbells. That was highlighted by EFF Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass.
I, or we as Oakland Privacy, we then found a social media post by the police chief of Dunwoody, Georgia saying, “Hey, look at this great party with Ring, and there’s Shaq.” Dave then went and took that information, went back and looked at Dunwoody and found that subsequently, a few months later, Dunwoody was proud to announce the first law enforcement partnership with Ring in the state of Georgia. What a coincidence.
Oftentimes it’s these coalitions working together that result in prying public records free and then establishing the context around them. The work we do involves very, very exciting things: Public records requests, lobbying of public officials and meeting with public officials, speaking at city council meetings and board of supervisors meetings. We’re talking, this is, primo excitement here.
So, as was mentioned, our work with Oakland Privacy was helpful in getting the first privacy advisory commission, an actual city of Oakland commission going, within the city of Oakland. It’s this organization, led by chair Brian Hofer, that passes policies regarding surveillance technologies, and not only passes policies but actually digs down and finds out what surveillance technologies the city of Oakland has. It has been a model for cities and counties, and we’re proud that our work will continue there in addition to working on many other issues surrounding surveillance.
In fact, I would be very happy to tell you that we’ve had … just recently the California assembly and the Senate passed a ban on the use of face surveillance on body-worn cameras. Again, our work with coalitions there makes the difference. And now, I would like to introduce another member of Oakland Privacy, Tracy Rosenberg.
Short version of this story: Barrett Brown and Aaron Swartz filed a FOIA together on “persona management software” and here is the document that came back on that request.
Index of a few highlights of this document:
Page 1 – $2,760,000 bid
Page 3 – Explains what the software does
Page 4 – Explains the VPN and “user traffic mixing”
Page 4 – Explains Static IP Address Management
Page 5 – Explains “Virtual Private Servers”
Page 6 – Explains “Point of Presence Locations” to allow personas to appear to originate from different locations
Page 7 – Explains the “Secure Operating Environment”
Page 8 – Says $2,760,000 again
Detailed version of the story:
As I was preparing Barrett Brown and Trevor Timm’s segment from the Aaron Swartz Day Evening Event for publication, and transcribing some of it, I realized that he and Aaron had actually kinda known each other.
This was amazing to me, as I had asked Barrett to start participating in our last two years of Aaron Swartz Day’s because his projects had felt so on-target with Aaron’s concerns and values, not because I knew that they had ever exchanged emails, much less collaborated at any point.
Barrett himself had basically forgotten about it until recently at the end of his talk with Trevor Timm during last year’s Evening Event. As I was transcribing the talk last week, my ears perked up as Barrett explained their interactions:
“He (Aaron) once offered to do an FOIA request on persona management. One of my interests back then. One of these disinformation propaganda methodologies that have come out of the intelligence contract industries, and had been encouraged by various states. Something that I think is very dangerous. So he offered to do his thing on that. To explore the possibilities and see if we could get some information on it. And the interesting thing about that is that I’d sort of forgotten about it until very recently. I’m not sure where that was left. I’m not sure if he got some results back.”
Aha! The hunt was on – I wanted to find this request and find out what information ever came back for it. I still didn’t know what “persona management” was exactly, but I could guess the outcome – sock puppets. I had always known that sock puppets were very dangerous, from the first day I learned of their existence en mass.
I had been working with Muckrock intensely all week myself, filing dozens of public records requests to numerous police and sheriff departments for the Aaron Swartz Police Surveillance Project. (Which just revamped it’s Muckrock templates, by the way.)
I wrote Barrett an email immediately asking what ever came of it. He said, to his knowledge, it was filed, but he didn’t know if anything was ever sent back on it. He sent me this Project PM link on “Persona Management”:
Persona management entails the use of software by which to facilitate the use of multiple fake online personas, or “sockpuppets,” generally for the use of propaganda, disinformation, or as a surveillance method by which to discover details of a human target via social interactions. Various incarnations of this capability have been discovered in the form of patents, U.S. military contracts, and e-mail discussions among intelligence contractors.
My first idea was to go back to the original story by Jason Leopold in Truthout that was published immediately after Aaron’s death. There was a link in it to all of Aaron’s FOIA requests, but it was broken. So I wrote Michael Morisy, founder of Muckrock, and asked him about it. He not only gave me a good link of every FOIA request Aaron Swartz ever filedand what he received back, on Muckrock. But he sent me the exact FOIA request in question, asking about persona management software. As well as the document that came back.
I sent the link to the response to Barrett.
“Hey, I believe this is the same RFP that became public in 2011, though I’m not entirely sure. But yes, that’s exactly what it’s used for; social media accounts are the main vector, and as seen by the recent NYT story on the Israeli firm that Trump campaign approached regarding this, it’s definitely been marketed to entities as a means of influencing elections (in this case, influencing GOP delegates).” (I have reposted the NYT story on our blog .)
This software allows you to have sock puppets on steriods, provide VPNs for masking your geographical location, with the ability to actually pull in feeds from the geographical location you are claiming to be in, so you make the right comments and comment on local posts/issues and such.
Sock puppets and fake personas were not a new invention, of course. But you usually had to be a technical wizard of sorts to be able to pull it off. You would have to actually write things in a certain voice and monitor the input and output feeds of a given location on your own. Perhaps a gifted individual could have 5 or 10 of these going at once, but that would be impressive.
In contrast, using the software described in the RFP that was retrieved from Aaron’s FOIA request on Barrett’s behalf, someone could have dozens or even hundreds of these things going at once; without having to remember everything. In addition, the software could refresh one’s memory about a certain profile before having to interact with a human. And human interactions come so rarely anyway. Most all social media interactions are passive – like email, as opposed to conversations in real time.
From the NY Times story:
“A top Trump campaign official requested proposals in 2016 from an Israeli company to create fake online identities, to use social media manipulation and to gather intelligence to help defeat Republican primary race opponents and Hillary Clinton, according to interviews and copies of the proposals.
The Trump campaign’s interest in the work began as Russians were escalating their effort to aid Donald J. Trump…
The campaign official, Rick Gates, sought one proposal to use bogus personas to target and sway 5,000 delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention by attacking Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr. Trump’s main opponent at the time.” – NY Times Article by By Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman, David D. Kirkpatrick and Maggie Haberman.
I will keep you posted as things develop.
Come discuss this and other Aaron Swartz Day mysteries at our March 8th Raw Thought Salon.
This article – with the relevant parts highlighted below – is here as a reference to this blog post about Aaron and Barrett Brown filing a FOIA together.
Aaron Swartz Filed a FOIA request, in collaboration with Barrett Brown, asking about Persona Management software. (Read the full story here, but here’s the document obtained via Muckrock.)
On the first page of the RFP, it shows its for a $2,760,000 bid (see page 1).
Note that I am not saying this RFP was directly connected to the NY Times article (it probably isn’t) – but it does look like this kind of software:
1) has become commonplace among state actors
The New York Times explains how this kind of software can be used to influence elections, was probably used in the 2016 election.
From the article:
After scouring social media accounts and all other available information to compile a dossier on the psychology of any persuadable delegate, more than 40 Psy-Group employees would use “authentic looking” fake online identities to bombard up to 2,500 targets with specially tailored messages meant to win them over to Mr. Trump.
The messages would describe Mr. Cruz’s “ulterior motives or hidden plans,” or they would appear to come from former Cruz supporters or from influential individuals with the same background or ideology as a target…
Each approach would “look authentic and not part of the paid campaign,” the proposal promised. The price tag for the work was more than $3 million…
A third document emphasized “tailored third-party messaging” aimed at minority, suburban female and undecided voters in battleground states. It promised to create and maintain fake online personas that would deliver messages highlighting Mr. Trump’s merits and Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses or revealing “rifts and rivalries within the opposition.”
1. Rick Gates Sought Online Manipulation Plans From Israeli Intelligence Firm for Trump Campaign By By Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman, David D. Kirkpatrick and Maggie Haberman for the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/us/politics/rick-gates-psy-group-trump.html
2. RFP that Aaron Swartz filed while working with Barrett Brown. (Courtesy of Muckrock)