How the Pentagon Learned to Use Targeted Ads to Find Its Targets

Byron Tau, in an excerpt from his new book “Means of Control”, as published in Wired with a clarification in brackets by me:

Initially, PlanetRisk was sampling data country by country, but it didn’t take long for the team to wonder what it would cost to buy the entire world. The sales rep at UberMedia provided the answer: For a few hundred thousand dollars a month, the company would provide a global feed of [the location of] every phone on earth that the company could collect on. The economics were impressive. For the military and intelligence community, a few hundred thousand a month was essentially a rounding error — in 2020, the intelligence budget was $62.7 billion. Here was a powerful intelligence tool for peanuts.

Locomotive, the first version of which was coded in 2016, blew away Pentagon brass. One government official demanded midway through the demo that the rest of it be conducted inside a SCIF, a secure government facility where classified information could be discussed. The official didn’t understand how or what PlanetRisk was doing but assumed it must be a secret. A PlanetRisk employee at the briefing was mystified. “We were like, well, this is just stuff we’ve seen commercially,” they recall. “We just licensed the data.” After all, how could marketing data be classified?

Government officials were so enthralled by the capability that PlanetRisk was asked to keep Locomotive quiet. It wouldn’t be classified, but the company would be asked to tightly control word of the capability to give the military time to take advantage of public ignorance of this kind of data and turn it into an operational surveillance program.

In the where are they now? vein, UberMedia was acquired by Near, a name you might recognize from recent coverage of how its data was used to target visitors to abortion clinics. Sen. Ron Wyden has requested (PDF) an investigation from the FTC and SEC; the former has been on a roll settling data broker and privacy violations.