The sharp-elbowed, ultra-connected data mining firm Palantir may be best known around Washington these days for its war with Army over its intelligence software. But the company is also making inroads in Foggy Bottom, where it's using its terror-hunting tech to help State Department fight human traffickers. And it's getting assists from unlikely allies like Google and LexisNexis.
Since 2012, Foggy Bottom's National Human Trafficking Resource Training Center and the Polaris Project, an NGO that fights human trafficking, have been using Palantir's software to analyze data they collect from victims and tipsters.
They use Palantir's software to identify patterns in information about traffickers and victims that are gathered by anti-trafficking hotlines around the globe. Basically, Palantir lets Polaris take information other anti-trafficking groups receive and put it into one large database -- making it easier to connect cases of trafficking, map trends, and create plans to combat trafficking operations in a specific area.
All of this gives non-technical people a "view of the world as discrete objects, relationships and their describing data," according to the firm's website.
Palantir isn't the only tech firm that's working with State and the Polaris Project to fight human trafficking. Google provided Polaris and similar NGOs -- Liberty Asia and La Strada International -- with $3 million to tie their hotlines together so they could use Palantir's computing power to "identify illicit patterns and provide victims with more effective support," according to a State Department announcement about its 2013 report on human trafficking, which was released today.
LexisNexis also developed a tool allowing these organizations to quickly mine news articles from 6,000 worldwide sources for information on human trafficking.
As for the company's fight with the Army, Plantir was used some troops in Afghanistan instead of the service's existing tool designed to do similar things, the Distributed Common Ground System Army (DCGS-A; pronounced dee-sigs a, seriously).
When glowing reports of Palantir's system began popping up in the Army, the backers of DCGS-A brought out the knives, even accusing the general who wanted Palantir sent to Afghanistan as having the firm ghost write his request to the Pentagon for the software. They also accused Palantir lobbyists of getting lawmakers to include cash for the software in wartime funding packages. Other Army documents knocking DCGS and insisting that Palantir should be used in Afghanistan were ordered destroyed and replaced with nearly identical documents save for the fact they don't recommend Palantir.
This fight was behind Gen. Ray Odierno's famous smackdown of Rep. Duncan Hunter during a House hearing earlier this year after the Congressman said the service was ignoring soldier complaints about DCGS. Army Secretary John McHugh said after the exchange that the service has purchased Palantir's software and is integrating it into DCGS.
Despite Palantir's reputation for providing spies with the tools they need to see everything - and clawing out the eyes of any bureaucrat that tries to stop 'em -- it looks like this is a case where Palantir's software is being used for something unmistakably good. Of course, that makes for good headlines, which can lead to more government contracts.
Syrian opposition groups and international aid groups are hustling to figure out a way for Syrian civilians to gain access to the outside world after nearly all Internet -- and possibly cell phone service inside the country went down today.
Many are concerned that this communications blackout is the precursor to a nation-wide massacre by the Assad regime.
"This is the MO of the regime before it storms any given area, they cutoff communications, water, power, before they storm and what always happens is a massacre," Rafif Jouejati, a U.S. representative for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria told Killer Apps today. "The fear is that this is going to be a nationwide storming, if that's possible."
However, "state TV and state supported television are reporting that, on one hand, that it was ‘terrorists' that brought down the Internet and the other story we're hearing [from the official outlets] it that it's a system malfunction and they're working hard to repair it quickly, so the state isn't even coming out with a consistent message," said Jouejati.
Right now, it's impossible to tell for sure who or how the Internet, cell networks and some landlines were cut -- though some reports indicate that a single router handling the majority of Syrian web traffic was taken offline.
"You might have a single Internet exchange point in Damascus that's been shut down, much the same way that Mubarak did [in Egypt, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square]. Authoritarian regimes often will architect their Internet activity to have a single point of surveillance and monitoring and uplink" that can be easily unplugged, said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Internet in a Suitcase project at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "The good news, if there is any, is that it probably won't take more than a few days to establish other links into" Syria.
Meinrath doubts the rebels took out the internet connection, "it seems unlikely that such a critical resource would be accessible to the rebels, especially as these systems are often in the heart of the city."
For now, "the workaround is dial up ... and that information is circulating on the Internet, which is not really helpful, but people are able to call to their families [because] not all landlines are down, and of course people with satellite phones are able to get the message so we're trying to spread it as widely as possible," said Jouejati.
The real problem will be if cell phone and landline networks remain down -- then things will become "much tougher and much more dangerous," added Meinrath, who echoed Jouejati's concerns that this is the precursor to a government massacre.
"Right now we know very little, we know that a number of ... servers have been cut off, and we are unable to reach spots that we had access to. I would say we won't know the extent of things for at least another few hours," said Meinrath.
If this was a government act, said Meinrath, "it's a sign that they've identified a crucial resource for democratic organizing and they've attempted to cut it off. They see the Internet as a force multiplier for good and they're working very diligently to make sure that resource is no longer available to the opposition."
The Internet in a Suitcase project is meant to provide people around the world with a secure means of accessing the web in disaster zones or places with severe government monitoring of communications.
"Internet in a Suitcase is built for exactly theses kinds of scenarios," said Meinrath, though he cautioned that his effort is not yet secure enough to ensure that its users will not be monitored by government forces. (Click here to read more about the project whose development was funded by the U.S. State Department.)
While Internet in a Suitcase is still being tested in relatively safe environments, Meinrath's group is in touch with the State Department about a possible deployment to Syria.
"We first put in a proposal to work [in Syria] six months ago, and were turned down," said Meinrath. "We were then invited to submit a statement of interest, which we did two weeks ago. Unfortunately, it's going to be too late to be of use in the current moment."
Meanwhile, the State Deparment says that it has distributed 2,000 secure "communication kits" to the region.
"Yes, we've provided some 2000 communication kits since this effort began. these are all kinds of things - computers, cameras, phones - they are all designed to be independent from and circumvent the Syrian network .... precisely to keep them free from regime tampering, interference and interception," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Here is the statement put out by the Local Coordination Committees on how Syrian residents may access the outside world.
In a move which raises fears that the regime is preparing for something, the criminal Syrian regime cut all communications (cellular networks, landlines and the internet service) in most areas of Damascus, which is the capital, and in its suburbs. In addition, communications were cut in most areas in the governorates of Hama, Homs, Daraa; in all areas in the governorates of Tartous and Swaida; and in some cities in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
The Coordinating Committees hold the regime responsible for any massacres that would be committed in any Syrian cities after such a move was made. Also, they call upon the world to move quickly and to take practical steps to protect civilians from the regime's crimes.
In addition, the Committees would like to remind the Syrian people that it is possible to connect to the internet via the dial-up service:
Dial up access Syria: +46850009990 +492317299993 +4953160941030
password:telecomix OR +33172890150
Additional reporting by David Kenner.
Human Rights Watch today fired the first salvo in its bid to establish an international ban on autonomous "killer robots."
The NGO argues that the rapid push to field armed and autonomous robot planes, boats, and ground vehicles will place civilian lives at risk and make it easier for countries possessing such weapons to go to war, while eroding the ability to punish war crimes.
"We believe these systems would not be able to comply with international humanitarian law standards and would pose unacceptable dangers to civilians during armed conflict. It would also create an accountability gap, as it would be unclear who should be held responsible for the inevitable violations of international humanitarian law that would occur," said Stephen Goose, executive director of arms programs at HRW, during a press conference today.
"Human Rights Watch is calling for a preemptive ban for the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons," said Goose, adding that governments should ban such weapons within their borders and then draft an international treaty barring autonomous "killer robots."
"We're not opposing robotic developments. We're not opposing the development of autonomous robots. What we're opposing are robotic weapons systems that are fully automated," said Goose.
To that end, HRW is working with the Nobel Women's Initiative to kick off an international effort to ban autonomous robots from the battlefield in the same way that blinding lasers were.
"We hope to launch the campaign in the first half of 2013. We've already had some preliminary meetings [with governments and other NGOs] and discussions on it, but the campaign would be exactly the same as put in this report; a preemptive ban as was carried out by Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross against blinding lasers back in 1996. It can be done," said Jody Williams of the Nobel Women's Initiative. Williams won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for her work as a founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines a project that helped bring about the international antipersonnel mine ban treaty that has been signed by 160 countries.
While HRW isn't calling for the banning of armed drones that are under the direct control of a person, such a ban could apply to armed UAVs that are currently being designed to fly in semi-autonomous swarms, with one or two human operators controlling multiple aircraft, said Goose in response to Killer Apps' questions.
"Governments will have to look at each weapon system individually, and each technology individually and circumstances of use individually and make determinations about whether they are compliant with international humanitarian law and about whether they pose excessive dangers to civilians," said Goose of semi-autonomous drones. "As we've seen with landmines and cluster munitions and blinding lasers and other weapons that have been banned, inevitably there are things that are on the margin, where it's a tough call whether they should fall under the prohibition or not, and I have no doubt that that will be the case with this issue."
The U.S. Air Force and Navy are both working on technologies that could put stealthy, jet-powered armed drones with varying levels of autonomy into service in the next ten years. The Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort aimed at fielding a -- possibly autonomous -- stealthy attack and spy jet capable of operating from aircraft carriers as soon as 2018 is perhaps the furthest along of these programs. The Air Force is even making its next heavy bomber "optionally manned," meaning that for missions that don't involve nuclear weapons, humans may not be on board.
Many of these programs are aimed at dealing with high-end air and sea defenses being fielded by nations such as Russia, China, and Iran that are meant to keep the current crop of U.S. ships and planes at bay.
As cybersecurity grows in importance, the United States and its allies need to improve information-sharing and collaboration on cyber threats, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said today.
While the United States does share information about cyber threats with some allies via existing mechanisms such as the Five Eyes agreement, it does so on an ad hoc basis. There is no specific structure for sharing cyber intelligence despite the fact that cyber threats and attacks crisscross international boundaries, said Napolitano after a speech on cybersecurity at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Cybersecurity, first of all, it is inherently international, it respects no national boundaries," Napolitano said. "Second, there are no international protocols or frameworks on which to hang things. Thirdly, there is a wide disparity in technological capacity among different countries, so it's really an area that requires a lot of work, but the plain fact of the matter is we have to work internationally."
As Killer Apps has reported previously, Pentagon officials have argued that rapid information-sharing between allies is badly needed to defeat cyber attacks since the cyber domain transcends national borders. Hackers in one country going after networks in another can often disguise their attacks to appear as if they are emanating from servers in a third nation. As Napolitano pointed out today, not all countries have the ability to detect cyber threats and attacks quickly. This means that a country whose servers are hijacked may not even know that it is hosting an attack.
"This is one area where there will needs to be a lot of work over the next, I will say months and years, it is not well developed yet," said Napolitano.
In addition to improving information-sharing with its allies, the United States is working to establish international "norms of behavior" in the cyber arena that are based on the law of armed conflict. These norms would define acts of cyber war, espionage, and crime and would establish what constitutes an appropriate response to such acts. However, these efforts are being held up by nations such as Russia and China, Pentagon officials say.
Here's what Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy, told Killer Apps about the matter last month:
"We look at cyber just like you would look at any other form of warfare or military operations," Rosenbach said. "So the law of armed conflict applies, and within that you can already interpret what would be acceptable in cyberspace. We don't have a lot of case history to back up the customary aspect of it in international law, but we think that the framework is already there."
Russia and China are focused more on controlling citizens' activities on the Internet rather than limiting attacks on nations' critical infrastructure, he said.
"There are other countries, the Chinese and Russians in particular, that don't think the law of armed conflict is the best framework to view these things through and they focus much more heavily on control of information than they do on the security of crucial infrastructure or preventing the destruction of networks."
Rosenbach went on to call this a "nonstarter."
"To say that your model of an international law for cybersecurity is based on controlling media content or what people can say about the government isn't something we're interested in at all," he said. "There are other areas -- in particular, the theft of intellectual property -- because that's a major problem for the United States right now, where there are very different ideas about what's acceptable and what's not."
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.