How a US phone-tracking firm spied on the CIA and NSA
Anomaly Six, a shadowy government contractor, claims to be able to track the travels of billions of phones worldwide and uncover spies with the push of a button.
Ahead of the start of the war in Ukraine, two unknown American firms met to explore a prospective surveillance alliance that would combine the capacity to follow the movements of billions of people through their phones with a steady feed of data acquired straight from Twitter.
According to Brendon Clark of Anomaly Six — or "A6" — the combination of Anomaly Six's cellphone location-tracking technology and Zignal Labs' social media surveillance would allow the US government to easily spy on Russian forces amassing along the Ukrainian border, or similarly track Chinese nuclear submarines.
Clark used A6's skills to eavesdrop on the National Security Agency and CIA, using their own smartphones against them, to verify that the technique worked.
Anomaly Six, situated in Virginia, was created in 2018 by two ex-military intelligence officials and has a public presence that is minimal to the point of being enigmatic, with its website providing nothing about what the business performs.
The company is one of many that buys massive amounts of location data, tracking hundreds of millions of people all over the world by taking advantage of smartphone apps harvesting location data and transferring it to advertisers.
The astounding spying potential was mentioned during a pitch to Zignal Labs, a social media monitoring startup that uses its access to Twitter's seldom provided "firehose" data stream to filter through hundreds of millions of tweets every day without limitation.
According to audiovisual recordings of an A6 presentation examined by The Intercept and Tech Inquiry, the company claims to be able to follow about 3 billion devices in real-time, which is comparable to one-fifth of the world's population.
Clark claims that A6 can siphon precise GPS measures obtained through clandestine partnerships with "thousands" of smartphone applications, a method he describes as a "farm-to-table approach to data collecting" in his presentation.
According to public records, US Special Operations Command paid Anomaly Six $590,000 in September 2020 for a year of access to the firm's "commercial telemetry feed."
The NSA and CIA both declined to comment.
US Senator Ron Wyden of the personal data industry, told The Intercept in an interview that "There is sure as hell a serious national security threat if a data broker can track a couple hundred intelligence officials to their homes and around the world."
A6's software contains a function dubbed "Regularity," which customers may activate by pressing a button that automatically analyzes frequently visited places to determine where a target lives and works, even if the GPS pinpoints provided by A6 do not include the phone owner's identity.
Anomaly Six was able to follow the precise movements of the world's most advanced military and intelligence units using just declassified satellite pictures and commercial advertising data.
Nate Wessler, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, privacy, and Technology Project, says "The Supreme Court has made clear that cellphone location information is protected under the Fourth Amendment because of the detailed picture of a person's life it can reveal."
The advisory board of Zignal includes a former head of the US Army Special Operations Command, Charles Cleveland, as well as the CEO of the Rendon Group, John Rendon, whose bio notes that he "pioneered the use of strategic communications and real-time information management as an element of national power, serving as a consultant to the White House, US National Security community, including the US Department of Defense."
Additionally, Zignal was paid nearly $4 million to subcontract under defense staffing firm ECS Federal on Project Maven "Publicly Available Information … Data Aggregation" and a related "Publicly Available Information enclave" in the US Army's Secure Unclassified Network.