Monday, January 27, 2020

Surveillance, Suppression and Intimidation: Tools for the Super-Rich?

by Nomad

If you haven't found time to read Ronan Farrow's latest book, Catch and Kill, it is certainly worth your time. In fact, it reads more like a John LeCarre spy thriller than a journalist's investigation.
Farrow's book actually deals with the story behind his expose of the allegations against media mogul and accused sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein. He reveals each painful step- from unsubstantiated rumors to firm allegation. To his credit, Mr. Farrow was relentless in seeking out women who privately claimed to have been sexually assaulted.

Yet, Weinstein had powerful friends who were willing to shelter him. And he also lots of tools at his disposal to block journalists and silence accusers. After all, sordid things that Weinstein did was pretty much of an inside secret in Hollywood. According to reports, wealthy Weinstein could afford to pay off his alleged victims (with non-disclosure agreements attached). If that didn't work, there was always the power of threats. According to his alleged victims, he could and would apply tremendous amounts of pressure on uncooperative individuals.
And he did just that... over decades. 

It was not until October 2017 when The New York Times and The New Yorker filed reports of the allegations of a dozen women that Weinstein's sexual abuse came under the spotlight. Those allegations included sexual harassment, assault and ultimately rape. Once the floodgates opened, many other women in the film industry made similar charges against Weinstein. one of the journalists who worked on that investigative article for New Yorker was Ronan Farrow.

Eventually, as the #metoo movement was erupting, Farrow had already understood that not everybody was eager to publish his story. Executives at NBC were not too enthused about the Weinstein investigation.  A year prior to the New Yorker publication, NBC had decided against airing Ronan's initial findings. (The wonder is how that story ever saw the light of day.)

The Other Story Behind the Story 

One of the more striking things about this part of the book is how sophisticated surveillance has become. This form of intelligence-gathering was once used against enemy spies or terrorist threats has now fallen into the hands of the rich and the powerful. Now - for a price- the same tools can be used by the super-rich.

While investigating the allegations against Weinstein, Farrow realized that he himself was under surveillance by a private firm. Farrow would only learn the extent of the surveillance later when one of the investigators came forward.
For you or me, the term “private detective” might conjure images of hard-drinking ex-cops working out of rundown offices. But for moneyed corporations and individuals, the profession has long offered services that look very different.
The origins of the modern investigation agency began with the best of intentions. Back in the 1970s, Jules Kroll founded a firm catering to law firms and banks. It was staffed by former law enforcement officers, FBI agents and forensic accountants.
The primary goal of Kroll's company, Kroll, Inc., was to operate as an anti-corruption tool, specializing in “pursuing crime, particularly financial crime, across international borders.”
As The New Yorker explained back in 2009:
He offered an ever-widening range of services—forensic accounting, crisis management, competitor analysis—tooled for a globalized business world, in which industrial espionage, counterfeiting, computer fraud, identity fraud, and sophisticated financial crimes have flourished.
In an age in which corruption was becoming more and more of a hindrance to markets, Kroll's business model was a hit. Kroll would go on to open offices in Paris, Moscow, São Paulo, Tokyo, Singapore, and Manila.

As Farrow observes. "The formula, and a generation of copycats, flourished."

After 9/11, the war on terrorism led to a subtle but important shift in that kind of intelligence gathering. The keyword was now "security."
In the 2000s, Israel became a hotbed for such firms. The country’s mandatory military service, and the legendary secrecy and accomplishment of its intelligence agency, Mossad, created a ready pipeline of trained operatives. The Israeli firms began emphasizing less conventional forms of corporate espionage, including “pretexting”: using operatives with false identities.
It was for Farrow like entering a new and futuristic and scary world. While investigating Weinstein's alleged victim's claims, he learned about a particular company with the somewhat malevolent name of "Black Cube."

In the Shadow of the Black Cube

In his book, Farrow connects the dots about the private agency.
Black Cube perfected the formula. It was founded in 2010 by Dan Zorella and Dr. Avi Yanus, who had been on the emails with Weinstein’s lawyers. Zorella and Yanus were both veterans of a secret Israeli intelligence unit. From the beginning, Black Cube had close connections to Israel’s military and intelligence leadership. Meir Dagan, the legendary former director of Mossad, sat on the company’s advisory board until his death, in 2016. Dagan once pitched Black Cube’s services to a tycoon by saying: I can find a personal Mossad for you.
Apparently, it was just the sort of service a lot of people were searching for.
Black Cube’s workforce grew to more than a hundred operatives, speaking thirty languages. It opened offices in London and Paris and eventually moved its headquarters to a massive space in a gleaming tower in central Tel Aviv, behind a jet-black unmarked door. Inside, there were more unmarked doors, fingerprint readers sealing many of them. In the company’s reception area, just about everything fit a black cube motif, from the plush furnishings to the art on the walls. In other rooms, agents took pretexting to new extremes. A single desk might have cubby holes containing twenty different cell phones, each tied to a different number and fictional persona. Everyone submitted to routine polygraphs to ensure they weren’t leaking to the press. Even the janitors got tested.
Black Cube has plenty of reasons to guard its internal security. Even before Weinstein, the firm had been no stranger to controversy.
Back in 2016, two of the company employees were arrested in Bucharest on suspicions of spying, phishing, and cyber harassing the chief prosecutor of the Romanian National Anticorruption DirectorateLaura Codruța Kövesi, and people close to her.
The pair were eventually convicted on charges of hacking and harassment. After sentencing, the company reached an understanding with the Romanian authorities and the two employees were released and returned to Israel after a few months.
The line between Black Cube and Israel’s actual intelligence apparatus could be fine. The private agency was “the exclusive supplier to major organizations and government ministries,” one court document revealed. So it was unsurprising that Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, had recommended Black Cube to Weinstein.
False identities on social media and shell companies were regularly used by the firm. In at least one case, a false identity was used to get up close and personal with one of the women who had spoken to Farrow. The mission was to compile of list of her friends and family and, most importantly, people she was in contact with. Through malicious apps on his phone, Farrow's movements were tracked.   
While much of the work the subcontractors did was routine—tracking cheating spouses or digging for dirt in custody cases that “might not be ethical, but it’s legitimate”—their work for Black Cube was something else. Ostrovskiy [an operative turned informant] told me about their efforts to track me, in person and through my phone. I thought back to the spam texts—the weather updates, and then the blitz of political surveys I got at the World Trade Center. He didn’t know if either was connected, but did say he’d gotten.
Farrow notes that subcontractors often used sophisticated spyware called Pegasus was developed by the Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group Technologies. This software is capable of reading text messagestracking calls, collecting passwords, tracing the location of the phone, accessing the target device's microphone(s) and video camera(s), and gathering information from apps.

According to several reports, software created by NSO Group was used in targeted attacks against human rights activists and journalists in various countries, was used in state espionage against Pakistan, and played a role in the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi. (That unconfirmed claim was made by a Saudi dissident who lives in exile in Canada. He alleged in the suit in December his communications with Khashoggi were monitored by Saudi Arabia using NSO software.)

In its defense, company executives claimed that Pegasus software had saved tens of thousands of people and was "a game-changer in foiling attacks by European Jihadists, as well as shutting down drug and human trafficking ring."

For Farrow, all of this came as a revelation: the very same espionage techniques once reserved for Cold War operations (or later, for anti-terrorism activities) were now being used by the rich and powerful to suppress the truth. 
Despite being only tangentially related to his Weinstein investigation, Farrow was intrigued and wanted to know more.

Shaping Reality for a Price

In February of last year, Farrow (along with  Adam Entous) wrote a piece for The New Yorker entitled Private Mossad for Hire. In that article, an Israeli private intelligence company, Psy-Group was profiled.
Psy-Group’s slogan was “Shape Reality,” and its techniques included the use of elaborate false identities to manipulate its targets. Psy-Group was part of a new wave of private intelligence firms that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services—self-described “private Mossads.” The most aggressive of these firms seemed willing to do just about anything for their clients.
Basically such firms operate without any oversight at all.
Psy-Group stood out from many of its rivals because it didn’t just gather intelligence; it specialized in covertly spreading messages to influence what people believed and how they behaved. Its operatives took advantage of technological reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds,” Uzi Shaya, a former senior Israeli innovations and lax governmental oversight. “Social media allows you to intelligence officer, said. “You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. It’s a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted. There are no regulations. It is a no man’s land.”
One of Psy-Group's campaigns was conducted on behalf of wealthy Jewish-American donors, the article claims. The mission was to embarrass and intimidate pro-Palestinian activists at American universities, in particular, those calling for a boycott against Israel.
Fabricated websites and false identities on social media are often used by the firm to create false “grassroots” movements and to manufacture negative online campaigns against the opposition.
When it comes to elections, the firm seems willing to work for either side of the political spectrum. Republican or Democratic, no election is too small. (Presumably, given the company's origin, as long as the candidate tows a pro-Israel line.)

Interestingly, among the firm’s advertized services, Psy-Group lists “honey traps” - that is, the employment of a sexually-attractive operative to induce a target to provide information or gain influence over the target. Exactly whether or not such services were ever used  (and against whom) is unclear.

Welcome to the brave new world of surveillance. a world in which, with the right amount of money the truth can be silenced, the investigators can be intimidated and politicians and prosecutors can be controlled.