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How Privacy in America Went Virtually Extinct in Just a Decade

Unless we challenge the idea that we should concede our rights to protect our safety, it'll get even worse.

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TrapWire correlates video surveillance with other data, including criminal and terrorist watch lists, facial recognition profiles, license plate information, stolen vehicles reports and other event data.  Its apparently most break-through feature is predictive capabilities designed to detect patterns of pre-attack surveillance.

Abraxas Corp., a Virginia-based company, developed TrapWire in 2004; it was acquired by San Diego-based Cubic Corp. in 2010 for $124 million in cash. Justin Ferguson, a security researcher, discovered reference to the program in dozens of emails amidst a stash of 5 million emails “liberated” from Texas-based Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) by Anonymous and published by WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks released some 5 million Strategic Forecasting emails in February 2012 and, within hours, was shut down by unidentified hackers. It suffered a nearly-fatal DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack. It argued that the attack was orchestrated by those who didn't want the Stratfor TrapWire emails released.  As Wikileaks reported, "Attacks on escalated after Wikileaks retweeted links to our mirrors of leaked files from WikiLeaks ... on a newly discovered mass surveillance program known as TrapWire." 

DAS has a very different lineage.  It was developed as a commercial partnership between the New York City Police Department and Microsoft at an estimated cost of $30 to $40 million. According to New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, “We’re not your mom and pop police department anymore.” The city will get 30 percent of the profits on Microsoft sales of the system to other cities and countries.  At the official launch ceremony, Bloomberg boasted, “We are in the next century. We are leading the pack.”

With DAS, investigators can track individuals or incidents (e.g., a suspicious package) through live video feeds from some 3,000 CCTV cameras, 2,600 radiation substances detectors, check license plate numbers, pull up crime reports and cross-check all information against criminal and terrorist databases.

These two programs add to a growing arsenal of high-tech capabilities being implemented by both federal and local governments in a ceaseless war against terrorism.  

“TrapWire is a technology solution predicated upon behavior patterns in red zones to identify surveillance,” said Stratfor Vice President for Intelligence Fred Burton, in a 2009 email. “It helps you connect the dots over time and distance.” Using cameras, sensors and other digital-data capture devices and diverse databases, TrapWire aggregates data at central surveillance points in major U.S. cities and landmarks. If someone is observed repeatedly taking photos or videos at a high-risk location or a car repeatedly passes such a site, the system captures the information. The digital data is then encrypted and nearly instantaneously disseminated to local sites where they are aggregated with other intelligence programs. 

Some years ago, the DHS undertook a trial of TrapWire in Washington, DC and Seattle.  The trial, which costs $832,000, linked 15 surveillance cameras, but officials reportedly ended the trial because the program did not seem promising. 

Nevertheless, the program was adopted in one form or another in many U.S. cities as well as in Ottawa, Canada. For example, TrapWire is a part of the Los Angeles Police Department’s iWatch monitoring system; New York’s “See Something, Say Something” program and reportedly links 500 cameras; the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center,  DC’s fusion center; a Las Vegas’  database linking surveillance systems of most resorts and the fusion center; the State of Texas spent a half a million dollars with an additional annual licensing fee of $150,000 for it; and the U.S. Army tested it at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and  Fort Meade.

DAS seems a mini version of TrapWire. “We can track where a car associated with a murder suspect is currently located and where it’s been over the past several days, weeks or months,” noted Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “This is a system developed by police officers for police officers.”

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