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The Trouble with TrapWire


Over the past week, the press and the Twitterverse has been running rampant with stories about TrapWire, the counter-terrorism technology company that produces a homonymous predictive software system designed to find patterns indicative of terrorist attacks.

The company was named in recent WikiLeaks releases as the source of software that facilitates intelligence gathering on American and global citizens, using a combination of surveillance technology, incident reports from citizens, and data correlated from local police and law enforcement agencies.

As reported previously in BiometricUpdate.com, TrapWire is a subsidiary of Abraxas Corp., a Virginia-based company that is staffed by former elite members of the U.S. intelligence community.

According to a RT report, TrapWire software leverages networks of surveillance cameras that are installed “in most major American cities at selected high value targets” and analyzes the images to detect “suspicious” behavior. According to e-mails stolen by the hacker group Anonymous and released by WikiLeaks, the system has been installed abroad as well.

Fred Burton, vice-president of intelligence at Strategic Forecasting Inc., purportedly stated in a leaked e-mail that TrapWire is in place at every high-value target in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, as well as in London, England and Ottawa, Canada.

Documents submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, describes the system in detail.

According to those filings, the system is based on the assumption that terrorists are vulnerable due to their need to conduct pre-attack surveillance, “such as photographing, measuring and signaling”. Such suspicious activities, as detected in imagery from pan-tilt-zoom cameras or human reports, are entered into a database, using a “10-characteristic description of individuals” or vehicle information. That data is then correlated across the network, creating a “network effect” of increased communication and collated intelligence. This data then is used to develop a threat meter, which can be accessed and monitored by security personnel. The system distinguishes threat and vulnerability information, the latter of which is not shared through the network.

The company has gone on the record in Crime and Justice International magazine about TrapWire’s capabilities, noting: “Any patterns detected – links among individuals, vehicles or activities – will be reported back to each affected facility. This information can also be shared with law enforcement organizations, enabling them to begin investigations.”

Law enforcement agencies have been quick to disavow use of the service. Chief NYPD spokesperson Paul J. Browne has denied that the department uses Trapwire. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police told Slate that it could not provide any comment on why the police force was mentioned in leaked e-mail due to its policy on not commenting on operations. Scotland Yard stated it had no knowledge of the service, while the London Stock Exchange refused to comment based on its “strong policy of not commenting on any issue related to security.”

While many in the law enforcement and national security establishment refused to comment about TrapWire, the public response has been overwhelmingly negative, and rightly so. While the public has an expectation of diminished privacy for security reasons at highly vulnerable places such as airports and on public transportation systems, it does not have an expectation of being constantly and continuously surveilled by governments in other public spaces.

Law abiding citizens have expectations in democratic societies that their governments will not spy on them. They have expectations that law enforcement and national security agencies will use proper procedures, not violate privacy laws, and mostly importantly, not trample upon constitutional rights that require governments to obtain warrants for the persistent tracking of individuals.

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