There was widespread alarm earlier this week when it emerged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would start collecting social media information on all immigrants, whether legally in the United States or not. From October 18, immigration files will be expanded to include “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results,” according to a recently-updated Federal Register.
Immigration feds will need a lot of help collecting and analysing all that additional information. They’re getting it from a handful of contractors who specialize in making sense of the big data filling Facebook, Twitter and myriad other platforms.
One contractor has been handed big-money contracts totalling nearly $3 million from the DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit since Donald Trump ascended to the presidency. Meet Giant Oak, a little-known American firm specializing in finding “the people behind the data” to “identify illicit actions, actors and networks,” according to its tagline.
The company, staffed by two dozen working out of a nondescript HQ in Arlington, VA, scored its biggest publicly-known government contract – a $962,000 order from ICE – this August, according to public records of federal government contracts. That deal, and all others with ICE this year, were for open source and “social media data analytics” services, as revealed in the “description of requirement” for the contracts. Later in the month, it was handed $794,000 for more of the same, followed by another $802,000 confirmed Monday. That was on top of another $377,000-worth of sales earlier in the summer for the same social media-focused products, taking its total revenue for the last half year, from the Trump administration’s immigration department alone, to $2.93 million.
From Afghanistan intelligence to Giant Oak
The company, which had already been scoring deals with the Obama administration for other data analytics projects, is led by CEO Gary Shiffman, a former chief of staff at Customs and Border Protection and a U.S. Navy Gulf War veteran. But Giant Oak’s origins date back to his days working with the military’s research arm, DARPA. He tells Forbes he worked on numerous projects, most notably Nexus 7, a controversial initiative used in Afghanistan to mine big data to gather “population-centric, cultural intelligence,” as Wired reported in 2011. Shiffman says he also worked on Memex, a next-generation search tool for the dark web that was created to help uncover human trafficking and has spawned other start-ups, most notably Qadium, a Peter Thiel-backed firm that just raised $40 million to build up its Google for the Internet of Things.
Now phased out, one of Giant Oak’s core products for government agencies was Social Locator, which provided “an unprecedented ability to identify and locate persons of interest by observing patterns of human behavior in the digital trace left behind by specific kinds of people evading law enforcement may differ from that of everyone else,” according to the firm’s old marketing material. Social Locator has now morphed into the Giant Oak Search Technology (GOST, pronounced “ghost”), which can create “a dossier on each individual with everything you need to know, such as web page images and keywords already highlighted.” (It’s also sold to private businesses wanting to uncover insider threats or gather information on “negative media,” as highlighted in the marketing video below).
Shiffman calls it “open source and social media exploitation,” but think of GOST as a super-advanced Digg Reader, allowing feds to create a tailored internet “domain.” The user can customise the platform so Giant Oak’s algorithms find and organize data so the most important information is gathered and presented appropriately.
In an interview with Forbes Wednesday, Shiffman explained GOST has three primary uses from a law enforcement perspective, though he couldn’t talk about specific contracts like those from ICE. First is the pure investigative use, looking into a single individual, where the tool will gather all the open source information cops need to start tracing someone. Shiffman claims, from anecdotal evidence, this has given cops “a four-hour head start” when compared to investigators who’re relying on manual searches of Google, Facebook and whatever other sites are of interest.
Second, and the largest use case, is triage, says the CEO. This is for screening or vetting large numbers of people at once. GOST can rank thousands of people at once by relevance, taking into consider what’s germane to the investigator. Finally, there’s “continuous evaluation.” Shiffman explains: “In continuous, you have 1,000 people and you want to see if there’s a change in the pattern in their behaviour over time.” When patterns change, such as a group of individuals becoming more erratic or prone to violence, an alert will let the feds know.
Anxiety around civil liberties and immigration is palpable right now. In response to the DHS’ increased mining of social media, Faiz Shakir, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) national political director, said it was “clear that the government intends to retain the social media information of people who have immigrated to this country, singling out a huge group of people to maintain files on what they say.”
“This would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the free speech that’s expressed every day on social media. This collect-it-all approach is ineffective to protect national security and is one more example of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.”
Immigration spends big on tech
What’s clear is ICE has been spending vast sums of technology designed to grab information of people of interest (the agency also investigates narcotics, child exploitation and a range of other crimes that deal with cross-border activity). Forbes recently discovered millions had been spent on cellphone hacking technology from a large number of, ironically, non-American vendors, including Israeli firm Cellebrite and a handful of smaller Russian businesses.
Publicly-available contracts show that in recent months, ICE has also been buying into products from PenLink, another little-known surveillance vendor that’s long been working for American interests. It claims to bring “cellphone and social media data together in one comprehensive analysis tool.” Just this month, the Homeland Security Investigations division in San Diego purchased a license for Xnet, a “solution for internet-based communication collection and analysis.” And in June, ICE spent $2 million on unspecified “telecommunications analysis and intercept software” from PenLink.
And ICE remains a major customer for Peter Thiel-backed Palantir, perhaps the biggest name in intelligence gathering and pattern-analysis today. And since Trump (also backed by the billionaire venture capitalist) came to power it’s been handed some significant purchase orders. Just this week, another $5.8 million went from the immigration unit to the $20 billion-valued intelligence giant.
As yet another travel ban this last week shows, Trump is continuing to take a hard line on immigration. The market for intelligence on legal or illegal aliens, therefore, is only going to boom.