There’s a growing cottage industry at the nexus of consumer research and government surveillance.
In a report published Friday, the Wall Street Journal explored the world of Premise Data Corp., an innocently-named firm that uses a network of users, many in the developing world, who complete basic tasks for small commissions. Assignments can range from snapping photos of competitors’ stores, to counting the number of ATMs in a given area, to reporting on the price of consumer goods on the shelf.
Roughly half of the firm’s clients are private businesses seeking “commercial information” (mostly reporting on competitors’ operations), both the US government and foreign governments have hired the firm to do more advanced reconnaissance work while gauging public opinion.
According to WSJ, Premise is one of a growing number of companies that are straddling “the divide between consumer services and government surveillance and rely on the proliferation of mobile phones as a way to turn billions of devices into sensors that gather open-source information useful to government security services.”
Premise’s CEO even hinted that the company had been tapped by foreign governments to help with setting policy about how to deal with “vaccine hesitancy”.
“Data gained from our contributors helped inform government policy makers on how to best deal with vaccine hesitancy, susceptibility to foreign interference and misinformation in elections, as well as the location and nature of gang activity in Honduras,” Premise Chief Executive Officer Maury Blackman said. The company declined to name its clients, citing confidentiality.
Premise launched in 2013 as a tool meant to gather data for use in international development work by governments and non-governmental organizations. In recent years, it has also forged ties to the American national-security establishment and highlighted its capability to serve as a surveillance tool, according to documents and interviews with former employees. As of 2019, the company’s marketing materials said it has 600K contributors operating in 43 countries, including global hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
Federal records show Premise has received at least $5MM in payouts from the government since 2017 on military projects—including from contracts with the Air Force and the Army and as a subcontractor to other defense entities. The company’s key utility was, again, gathering information: It would use civilian users in Afghanistan and elsewhere to map out “key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes; and covertly monitoring cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square kilometer area.” – READ MORE
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