In early April, a federal proposal appeared on a U.S. government run website called “FedBizOps,” this website in layperson terms is a one-stop shop for private businesses and U.S. government licensed contractors to search for federal contracts ranging from surplus weapon sales to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor project needing new cable assemblies.
However, the proposal in question titled, “Media Monitoring Services,” was submitted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Protection and Programs Directorate, and the need within the obscure request was simple: Homeland Security needed a private tech company or government contractor to develop a constant monitoring and reporting system on over 300,000 U.S. and foreign-based journalists.
The contract proposal also included national and international editors, bloggers, and “other media influencers” across the digital, video, radio, cable, and print news and reporting spectrums.
The proposal included the need to have machine learning technology to analyze “sentiment” of all of these possible targets for digital surveillance with an excerpt from the contract proposal saying that these potential services, “shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers.” the proposal added that the system that will need to be developed must be able to, “incorporate these functions into their programs in order to better reach federal, state, local, tribal, and private partners.”
On top of this almost Orwellian request, the data scraping and analysis program must operate 24 hours a day 7 days a week and upon granting the contract to the winning bidder, needed to be up and running in five days.
This DHS request comes at one of the worst times in recent years for both journalism and the U.S. government, as the term “fake news” has become the battle-cry of the majority of the U.S. population residing on either political ideologies.
The potential for abuse by the U.S. government in regards to this proposal is also frighteningly possible. As seen with the newly released “Comey memos” where former FBI directer James Comey recalled Trump saying he wanted to put a “head on a pike” as an example to other journalists. And added that some reporters may change their tune if they could only, “spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend.” Which Trump seemed to be alluding that reporters possibly being raped or the threat of being raped in prison may be a motivating factor to forcing them to give up their sources.
Where would such data come from you may be asking, does such a large dataset already exist, could this mass of collected data be coming from the cyber boogymen of the National Security Agency (NSA)?
The Fusion Cell reached out to several cyber “ground-pounders” and one such hacker that we will dub “Master Control Program,” or MCP, who has been in the cyber security game since the “Hacker Manifesto” chillingly said “that data has already been collected by private industry.” And most of us already know who has been collecting on us for years, corporations like Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Palantir, and Google have been scraping all of their user data for nearly a decade.
And they and other smaller data collection companies may be all too happy to provide this data and the infrastructure to the U.S. government.
Yet, the United States is late to the game according to MCP, “Germany does this, France does this, really everyone is doing this on some sort of scale.” When asked how this type of monitoring could produce fear within media and journalism as a whole MCP simply replied, “the only reason we are taken aback by this is because of our high level of mistrust in the government now. In some respects this is the end state of corporate polarization of media…i.e. the media not fulfilling the role of serving the public trust.”
MCP pointed out that now mainstream media has been highly corporatized by some foreign entities that the United States are not on good terms with covertly, namely China and Russia.
For instance, Forbes Media LLC sold the majority of its shares to a Hong Kong investment company called, Integrated Whale Media Investments. Which is apart of a conglomerate of the Chinese state-run investment firm HNA Group which has ties to a little known group of investors on Hainan Island. Which in the cyber warfare realm set off alarm bells since this island is the location of one of China’s Peoples Liberation Army largest cyber warfare bases that was fingered as the point of origin for a cyber attack named Operation Aurora which targeted Google, Adobe, and Intel among others in early 2010.
Then there is Russia who many believe currently have, and empirical evidence points to, a robust disinformation campaign that has been in effect well before the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2016. On top of Russia also being suspected of running an almost InfoWars-esque campaign of inundating social media with conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods that some in the far right, and at times the far left, of the U.S. political spectrum are all to willing to gobble up as it fits within their respective biased social bubbles and beliefs.
This Russian disinformation campaign structure was outlined in a well researched article by The Cipher Brief which indicates that the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) along with cyber elements of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye, or GRU have been running a long placed cyber ‘active measures’ campaign for some time.
As well as the SVR sending in Russian operatives to, “maintain networks of human intelligence officers under “legal” diplomatic cover inside of foreign ministry embassies around the world – such as military or cultural attachés – and covert officers, or “illegals,” posing as students, business persons, journalists and other professions.”
All of this information and actions are crashing onto the shores of the Trump administration and has sent the U.S. government into “knee-jerk” mode and they now have begun clamping down on anything but benign press releases and canned pre-approved statements.
The U.S. government simply has no idea who to trust within the fourth estate anymore so it seems they are picking the DEFCON 1 option in information control.
Many in the journalism community are already feeling the pinch, some journalists have taken to twitter to express their dealings with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process where stone-walling has reached peak frustration levels. Some FOIA requests are even held up for some freelance writers until they can prove their employment with media outlets an then are told to resubmit their requests.
In some respects this isn’t entirely the U.S. governments fault, the U.S. has been so focused on counter-insurgency operations in 149 countries in Africa, a war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, assisting Saudi Arabia in their war in Yemen, as well as the ‘Forever War’ of Afghanistan. The United States simply did not pool enough resources or time into protecting the homeland from this type of media and information influence campaigns.
And now the United States is playing ‘catch-up’ in the simplest of terms.
Feature image courtesy of: The Walt Disney Company.