Secretive Intelligence Firm With Alberta Government Contract Reveals Limitations of Public Disclosures

Ethan Cox, Ricochet:

On Thursday, February 1 a strange tweet was sent from the Twitter account of Welund, a secretive multi-national surveillance company run by former law enforcement and intelligence operatives with a track record of spying on activists and public figures.

“Obstruction charge against Indigenous journalist Brandi Morin proceeds,” read the tweet, linking to an article on Welund’s intelligence platform — an article that can only be accessed by corporations, law enforcement agencies and governments who pay huge sums to access Welund’s “intelligence.”

It seems kind of strange for Welund to be tweeting a stream of locked-down links. Surely there must be a better front-end for clients to follow the latest relevant news from within this platform, right? Weird stuff.

I am linking to this article primarily because it shows how obfuscated and unaccountable these private intelligence firms are. For example:

Another wrinkle is that Welund’s services are offered in a format designed to thwart access to information requests. Instead of sending intelligence reports to government officials by email, they publish them on their own secure site, where government officials are able to sign in and access them. Because the documents are never in the possession of the government, they can’t be compelled to disclose them.

Cox also found Welund’s connection to the Alberta government through a barely documented branch known as the Provincial Security and Intelligence Office. According to a description on page 153 of 2022–2023 government estimates (PDF), it is overseen by the Chief Firearms Office; it is not mentioned in the current year estimates (PDF). The most comprehensive public explanation of the PSIO can be found on page 22 of the transcript of a March 2022 hearing (PDF). I would not assume the government is being deliberately withholding. Rather, this is likely one of those cases where even standard government transparency is not enough to understand the powers and decisions made by this Office.

Of course, it could be worse. Cox:

[…] multiple subsidiary companies are often created to decrease the likelihood of journalists or others piecing together the business relationship between such a company and government, law enforcement or other clients. We’ve identified at least four distinct business entities that all trace back to Welund, including Foresight Reports, Welund North America Ltd. and Falling Apple Solutions.

This is a clever tactic. If a contract is between some minor office within an agency and a consulting firm instead of, say, directly between an agency and a private intelligence firm, it makes it harder to track spending. For example, if you were looking at this agreement between Public Works and Government Services Canada and Carahsoft, you would not be aware it is for Palantir access unless you also searched the contract number and found Carahsoft’s press release.

This required transparency is better than the entirely voluntary private sector. The vast majority of us have zero insight into the supply chains and contractors for everything we buy. But the public sector could do a better job of ensuring visibility into the true nature of every party in a contract. Also, the Alberta government should more fully disclose its intelligence services, and they should not be spying on journalists.

There is one thing I am not certain of from Cox’s investigation:

Welund also did not respond to a request for comment sent last night, but within minutes of our request being sent the tweet referencing Brandi Morin was deleted from their Twitter feed.

Then, after we sent comment requests to the government bodies this morning, their entire site was locked down. Instead of the landing page detailing their services that previously greeted visitors, their site now leads only to a secure login portal for clients.

The first part of this quote is entirely correct; the tweet was removed from Welund’s account. So far as I can tell, the second claim — that the company locked out an inquiring public — is questionable.

Like many websites, Welund’s can be accessed via http and https protocols but, unlike most, visiting the https one is entirely different. The http version contains the same marketing page as appears in Cox’s report and which, this article says, was “locked down” following inquiries. The https version redirects to the sign-in page. In Safari, I can access both pages no problem. However, in the Chromium-based Vivaldi, the http version redirects to the https version because it automatically “upgrades” connections. Archived versions of Welund’s website from last year exhibit the same behaviour.

It seems plausible to me this was the reason why Welund’s website appeared to be closed off, though I am not sure how Cox would have seen the http version first. (Perhaps in a different browser?) I have flagged this for Ricochet in an email. Right now, Welund’s stripped-down site — a classic trait of bizarrely successful government contractors — works fine for me if you view it in a browser which still supports http connections.