A San Francisco tech company paid millions by the U.S. military has turned an army of overseas cellphone users into a sweeping open-source intelligence network, gleaning data from cell towers and wifi hotspots in countries long engulfed by armed conflict with American forces and allies.
Citing federal spending records and other documents, including interviews with former employees, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Premise Data Corp., a firm launched in 2013, has pitched a range of defense agencies on turning a global network of gig workers into unwitting intelligence gatherers across as many as 43 foreign countries.
A phone app developed by the company, also called Premise, allows users to complete seemingly innocuous tasks in exchange for small payments. Common assignments include photographing buildings, such as religious sites and financial institutions, and completing surveys crafted to provide insight on local populations. How exactly this data is used by Premise’s defense agency and private contractor clients is only vaguely described. But in addition to benign uses acknowledged by the company—such as gauging “vaccine hesitancy” and “susceptibility to foreign interference and misinformation in elections”—the Journal points to offers by the company to scout positions in conflict regions eyed by military commanders.
In one instance, the company reportedly made clear that it could conceal its military ties from its users, effectively turning them into unwitting operatives. In a presentation to U.S. special operations task force in Afghanistan in 2019, Premise said that jobs offered to gig workers could be designed to “safeguard true intent.”
Confronted by the Journal, Premise said such operations were discussed in purely hypothetical tense and were not reflective of the service provided to military clients.
Users have also been tasked with collecting data on wireless signals and other cellphones—a practice that Premise likens to efforts by Google and Apple to map wifi networks. While this information has obvious inherent value for U.S. intelligence, the company’s chief executive, Maury Blackman, sought to downplay its consequence, saying the practice is neither unique nor a secret.
Premise—which the Journal reports has ramped up efforts to hire Washington, D.C. staff with security credentials—previously received $1.4 million for its work on a military reconnaissance program, which the Air Force would only describe as machine learning work.