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Revealed - CIA Funds Venture Capital Fund That Uses Social Media To Track Citizens

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Key Points

  • The relationship between the surveillance state and big tech companies has grown closer since September 11, 2001.
  • CIA-funded venture capital firm—In-Q-Tel—invested in technology companies that specialize in social media data mining and surveillance.
  • One such firm—Dataminr—advertised its capability “discover an individual’s interconnectivity and interactions with others on social media” to foreign governments through Beacon Global Strategies.
  • It is clear that the CIA recognizes the importance of data collection and surveillance to their operations while harboring little concern for Americans’ privacy.

Written By Steven Richards 

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States government vastly expanded the surveillance state in an effort to identify future terrorists and provide greater security. To this day, the executive branch apparatus that makes up the surveillance state remains largely opaque and subject to little oversight. At the same time, the relationship between the national security apparatus and private technology companies—especially social media companies—has only grown closer since September 11th as technology has become a more integral part of our daily lives.

The encroachment of both the state and private technology companies on our personal liberties is a central component of the legacy of September 11th. Nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in the story of Dataminr and In-Q-Tel.

No entity represents the fusion between the U.S. Intelligence apparatus and private technology firms better than In-Q-Tel (IQT). IQT was founded in 1999 as a CIA-funded venture capital firm dedicated to ensuring that the intelligence community would never fall behind on the cutting-edge technology coming out of Silicon Valley.

Much of In-Q-Tel’s investment are conducted in the dark. According to the WSJ, “The firm discloses little about how it picks companies to invest in, never says how much, and sometimes doesn’t reveal the investments at all.”

However, in 2016, the Intercept obtained a document which revealed previously undisclosed companies that received funding from IQT. According to the Intercept, “among the 38 previously undisclosed companies receiving In-Q-Tel funding, the research focus that stands out is social media mining and surveillance; the portfolio document lists several tech companies pursuing work in this area, including Dataminr, Geofeedia, PATHAR, and TransVoyant.”

These companies specialize in a variety of data collection methods, some of which blur the lines between surveillance and legitimate information collection. For example, Geofeedia was cut off from Facebook and Twitter after the ACLU revealed the company was granted access to personal user data.

Another company funded by In-Q-Tel—Dataminr—exemplifies the intertwined nature of the intelligence community, big tech, and government consultants that was normalized in the aftermath of September 11.

First, what does Dataminr do?

According to the Intercept’s research on Dataminr, the company “directly licenses a stream of data from Twitter to visualize and quickly spot trends on behalf of law enforcement agencies and hedge funds, among other clients.” The company officially advertises that it provides real-time alerts on events like natural disasters to help private and public sector clients monitor and respond to situations. It is important to note that Twitter is a co-investor in Dataminr with CIA’s In-Q-Tel.

However, leaked documents obtained by the Verge reveal the full range of Dataminr’s capabilities and shed light on why the CIA would be interested in them. According to the documents, Dataminr used Beacon Global Strategies—a global consulting firm replete with former national security officials, including Jeremy Bash, Michael Allen, and Michael Morell—in order to pitch its product to foreign governments.

As mentioned, though Dataminr officially advertises provided news alerts on events, a Beacon marketing document offered governments the ability “to explore an individual’s past digital activity on social media and discover an individual’s interconnectivity and interactions with others on social media.” This is significantly more invasive on a personal level than the services that Dataminr publicly advertises. On its face, it even violates Twitter’s developer agreement.

Not only did Beacon market Dataminr to the public face foreign governments, but also to at least one foreign intelligence agency—the British MI6. It is important to note that the United States and the United Kingdom cooperate closely on intelligence through the Five Eyes intelligence sharing agreement. As recent NSA documents reveal, we still do not know how intelligence agencies police access to information obtained on our citizens by the British government. This is a potential loophole through which the NSA or other intelligence agencies can collect unauthorized data on U.S. citizens.

After coming under scrutiny in 2016, Twitter cut off U.S. intelligence agencies from using Dataminr to monitor Twitter’s public feeds. Yet, Twitter still permitted Dataminr privileged access to its data feeds which continue to be used by its clients. Dataminr came under even greater scrutiny in 2020 when the Intercept revealed law enforcement agencies used its services to track and monitor the George Floyd protesters. Dataminr has a history of cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

What does the story of Dataminr tell us?

The leaks surrounding Dataminr reveal the nexus of private technology companies and U.S. intelligence agencies empowered by the post-September 11 changes. The CIA, through a “private” investment firm called In-Q-Tel, embedded itself within a company dedicated to online social media surveillance. This pattern likely applies to IQT’s other clients, and even though the details of the agreements remain opaque, we know that their services are based on social media data mining and surveillance. It is clear that the intelligence community more broadly—and the CIA specifically—recognize the importance of data collection and surveillance to their operations while harboring little concern for Americans’ privacy, walking hand-in-hand with big tech companies.