Category Archives: COVERT UNDERCOVER

Inside the global terror watch-list that secretly shadows millions

The database contains profiles on millions of “heightened-risk individuals,” and is used by dozens of leading banks, governments, and spy agencies

thomson-reuters-times-square image www.intelagencies.com

Thomson Reuters building in Times Square, New York. (Image: file photo)

There is a private intelligence database, packed full of personal details of millions of “heightened-risk” individuals, which is secretly having a devastating effect on those who are on it. Most have no idea they’re under the watchful gaze of some of the world’s largest and most powerful organizations, governments, and intelligence agencies.

But for its worth and value, it wasn’t nearly kept secure enough.

A copy of the database, dating back to mid-2014, was found on an unsecured server hosted by a London-based compliance company, which specializes in “know your customer” profiling and anti-money laundering services.

Chris Vickery, a security researcher at MacKeeper, who found the database, told me that it was stored on a server configured for public access.

This influential yet entirely unregulated database called World-Check lists over 2.2 million corporations, charities, and individuals — some notable, like politicians and senior government officials — which might be connected to illegal activities, like sanctions, violations or financial mismanagement.

Some have been pinned under the database’s “terrorism” category, or are thought to be connected to financing violence.

This data could affect a person’s ability to be lent money by a bank, their employment opportunities, and even influence the people who do business with them — simply based on a designation.

Word of the database first widely emerged earlier this year when Vice News disclosed the existence of the project. It said the database was “secretly wielding power over the lives of millions” who are said to have “hidden risk,” such as those who are violating sanctions or have laundered money or a connection to criminals — which has been linked to account closures and bank blacklisting. As the news site pointed out, simply being a high-profile individual can label someone at risk of bribery.

The report said the database now has over 2.7 million entries — including over 93,000 records relating to those associated with terrorism.

No wonder it’s popular with law enforcement agencies and government departments, which subscribe to the database in an effort to uncover potentially improper conduct. Most of the world’s largest banks and law firms, and over 300 government and intelligence agencies are subscribers, according to a 2015 sales document from its owner, information and finance giant Thomson Reuters, which in 2011 bought the company for $530 million .

Because of the sensitivity of the data, access is limited to a few thousand customers, which have been carefully vetted and are bound by secrecy and non-disclosure agreements.

Vickery reported the leak to Thomson Reuters, but he still went public in an effort to spark a debate on whether these profiling databases are being run appropriately.

“If governments and banks are going to alter lives based upon information in a database like this, then there needs to be some sort of oversight,” he said in an email.

The problem is, there isn’t.

Vickery shared access to the database with ZDNet.

Each profile lists a person’s potential risks such as “narcotics” or “terrorism,” “organized crime,” or “politically exposed person.” Given the list’s potential power to alter a person’s opportunities, many would not approve of their name being on it.

Take one example. Maajid Nawaz ran for the British parliament as a Liberal Democrat in the last election, as profiled by Vice. He is a former member of the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for its own Islamic state. He was detained in Egypt for five years, but is best known for his publicized and well-documented transition away from radical views. He later set up a think-tank dedicated to challenging the extremist narrative, and advised former prime ministers from Tony Blair onwards on Islamic extremism. And yet, after looking up his profile on the World-Check database, created in 2002, it’s still maintained with a “terrorism” tag and updated as recently as August 2013, despite “no further information recorded,” let alone any connection to extremists or terrorists.

nawaz copy www.intelagencies.com

He called the database “archaic,” and said that the inclusion of his name has had a “material impact” on his life.

It’s not just individuals who are designated as affiliates with terrorism, despite equally publicly available data to suggest the contrary.

A BBC investigation last year showed the process behind banking giant HSBC’s bid to shut down accounts associated with several prominent British Muslims. A mosque in North London was given a “terrorism” label, despite new management that was installed more than a decade ago.

Other names in the database include diplomats and ambassadors, and senior ranking officials associated with global financial institutes, such as the World Bank, as was previously reported.

Based on how profiles are built, potentially anyone with an internet footprint could be included.

Much of the data comes from law enforcement sources, political information, articles, blog posts, and social media, among other sources. From the records we looked at, the data would often contain names, locations, and dates of birth and details of education. but also in some cases social security numbers, and citizenship and passport numbers were included.

The profiles themselves often have little or no justification for the entry. From our searches, we found high ranking global government officials who were named in the files yet there was no visible or clear justification for why they were there. In most cases there were just a handful of external links to publicly available documents, like speeches, election results or pages linking to official government websites for justification of their presence.

Many of the “reports” list a person’s risk as “to be determined,” suggesting there were no improprieties, illegal activities, or even an apparent reason for a profile, except for their status as a public figure.

The database we examined is two years old, and the records may have changed since, however.

A spokesperson for Thomson Reuters didn’t specifically respond to a question in relation to how profiles are built, vetted, or designated, but pointed me to the World Check privacy policy, which reiterates its effort to get data based on information in the public domain.

This entire market of “know your customer” and profiling remains unregulated and ungoverned — despite being used by some of the most powerful countries and organizations today. This industry is growing at a rapid rate — some say by over $30 billion by the start of the next decade. Even though the service has to stand up to strict European and UK data protection rules, a lack of public scrutiny and accountability makes that task almost impossible.

Those who are named in the database have little or no recourse to have their data corrected or removed.

In Nawaz’s case, Thomson Reuters reportedly removed his profile earlier this year. But given that the contents of the database are shrouded in secrecy, not everyone will have the same luck, let alone know they’re on a database in the first place.

SDNN
Henry Sapiecha

MORE LEAKS TO COME SOON SAYS JULIAN ASSANGE OF WIKILEAKS FAME

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on August 18, 2014 image www.intelagencies.com

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on August 18, 2014. Photo: JOHN STILLWELL

WikiLeaks is planning new releases of secret documents on controversial negotiations and intelligence agency operations, according to the anti-secrecy organisation’s Australian founder, Julian Assange.

In an interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Assange  said that while he does not expect to leave Ecuador’s London embassy any time soon, WikiLeaks very much remains in the business of publishing the secrets of diplomats and spies.

“There’ll be more publications – about large international so-called free trade deals, and about an intelligence agency,” Mr Assange said.

Over the past two years WikiLeaks has published leaked documents relating to the secret Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations as well as talks on the proposed multilateral agreement on Trade in Services.

In December 2014, WikiLeaks also published a leaked US Central Intelligence Agency analysis of the effectiveness of drone strikes and another CIA paper on the implications of enhanced airport security arrangements for clandestine intelligence operatives.

At that time WikiLeaks said the CIA documents were the beginning of a series of releases relating to the US espionage agency.

Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2014 image www.intelagencies.com

In a wide ranging interview Mr Assange discussed the recent establishment of a secure internet chat system to enable anonymous sources to contact WikiLeaks and the prospective reintroduction of a secure electronic drop box to facilitate the deposit of leaked documents

Mr Assange acknowledged that re-establishing a drop box had proved a challenge since the WikiLeaks submission system had been disabled when a disgruntled member left the group in late 2010.

“Given the realities of mass surveillance, and the intense focus on WikiLeaks, we knew we needed a much stronger approach,” he said.

“There have been a number of efforts to do this, by others and ourselves, but until now every one has failed the test.  Our new system has some innovation that will be visible, and a lot that is not.”

Mr Assange said that a key challenge arose from the fact that any website open to receive anonymous leaks was an “exposed front door that becomes a permanent target” for intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

One part of the solution is to embed the instructions and code for the submission system on every webpage so that potential sources would be concealed amidst the estimated 500,000 unique readers who visit the WikiLeaks website each month.

“That gives a source some cover,” Mr Assange said, “but it’s important to understand that the protection of sources requires much more than a single technological fix.”

“A combination of elements is needed – cryptologic, jurisdictional and personal security.”

Mr Assange acknowledged his physical location in Ecuador’s London embassy was “a complicating factor, but not insurmountable” in WikiLeaks operations, and pointed to the assistance given by WikiLeaks staffer Sarah Harrison to former US intelligence contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden as a demonstration of high levels of operational security.

Mr Assange said that he was hopeful that Sweden’s highest court would strike down the still current arrest warrant for him to be questioned about sexual assault allegations that were first raised in August 2010.

He has lived at Ecuador’s London embassy since June 2012 when the South American country granted him political asylum on the grounds that he is at risk of extradition to the United States to face espionage and conspiracy charges arising from the leaking of thousands of secret documents by US Army private Chelsea Manning.

In March, a US court confirmed that WikiLeaks and Mr Assange are still being targeted in a long-running investigation by the US Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation. British police are on guard outside the Ecuadorian embassy, waiting to arrest Mr Assange so he can be extradited to Sweden for questioning about the sexual assault allegations. Mr Assange denies the allegations and his lawyers have advised that he is at risk of extradition to the US from both Sweden or the United Kingdom.

Sweden’s Supreme Court confirmed this week it will hear an appeal by Mr Assange seeking to quash the arrest warrant on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to progress the case and that he has been denied access to key facts relevant to the decision to arrest him.

However, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has confirmed even if the Swedish warrant disappeared British police would still seek to arrest Mr Assange for breaking his bail conditions when he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy.

“When my legal team asked the FCO whether they were aware of any US extradition proceedings, they refused to confirm or deny,” Mr Assange said.

“There’s also the question of US and UK investigations relating to Sarah Harrison as myself as a consequence of our assistance to Snowden,” he added.

Mr Assange said he hadn’t had any contact from Australian consular officials for more than a year. His Australian passport, currently held by British authorities, has expired. He has been advised that he must physically present himself at the Australian High Commission in London if he wishes to obtain a new passport.

“The Australian Government and DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] like to make a big song and dance about helping Australians overseas, but the reality is they do as little as possible, especially when they don’t like someone’s politics.

“I’m probably not moving for a while yet,” he said.

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Henry Sapiecha

This licensed Private Investigator has had sex with 60 prostitutes – Sydney’s ratepayers footing the bill

Someone's gotta do it. Fred Allen is paid to use the services of suspected brothels image www.intelagencies.com

Someone’s gotta do it: Fred Allen* is paid to use the services of suspected brothels. Photo: James Brickwood

Three years ago Fred Allen* was a taxi driver working 12-hour shifts to make ends meet.

Today, he is a gun for hire, having received tens of thousands of dollars from Sydney’s metropolitan councils in exchange for crucial evidence that is presented in court to help expose and close underground parlours. In short, Mr Allen has paid sex with prostitutes and ratepayers foot the bill.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined a job like this existed, let alone me doing it,” the 60-year-old said, with a hint of a smirk. “It’s a strange world for sure.”

Mr Allen confirmed he had completed more than 60 jobs at locations across Sydney www.intelagencies.com

Mr Allen confirmed he had completed more than 60 jobs at locations across Sydney. Photo: James Brickwood

When Sydney-based Lyonswood Investigations advertised for a “brothel buster investigator” in 2011, it was inundated with resumes from as far afield as Finland.

But while all applicants were willing to engage in paid, undercover sex, the agency’s managing director Lachlan Jarvis confirmed Fred was the only suitable candidate for the niche role. “He had his private investigator’s license, his oral and written English was excellent, he was willing to appear in court if needed … and he was single.”

Mr Allen’s maiden mission involved an undercover visit to an unlicensed brothel reportedly masquerading as a massage clinic. “I had never been to a brothel in my life so I was feeling quite nervous and apprehensive,” he recalled.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I reminded myself that this was a legal job exposing illegal activities. As far as first days at work go, I enjoyed myself.”

Since then, a core group of approximately 10 Sydney councils have called on his services. “The drill is always the same, he explained. “An email arrives in my inbox providing the name, address and description of the premises. I then head in, get the information required and file a written report to the office, which is forwarded to the council.”

Mr Allen confirmed he had completed more than 60 jobs at various locations across Sydney. In nearly every case, the establishments were “clean and comfortable” environments staffed almost exclusively by Asian girls who were in Australia to “study English”. Sexual services were given in all but three of the businesses he has visited, he said.

“The jobs flow in, on average, once every three weeks. If it spreads out that way, it’s perfect,” he said.

“But there are occasions when they all arrive at once. For instance, I was given three jobs to complete, for the same council, in the same week … and I’m not as young as I used to be.”

While Mr Allen said he enjoys the thrill of going undercover, he doesn’t believe there’s a book in his adventures.

“I’d like to recount a series of hair-raising adventures and humorous anecdotes but, the truth is, it’s all pretty run of the mill,” he said. “I’m hired as your regular, everyday customer who walks in, requests a service, pays the money, and then leaves with a smile. I’ve never had a knife drawn on me or anything.

“I can assure you, it’s far safer than being a taxi driver. It’s better paid too.”

Though their paths have never crossed, he is aware of one other agent like him in Sydney. Far from feeling threatened, he is “heartened” by the likelihood of there being more. “It would be nice to meet them one day,” he said.

To date, he has only shared his secret with one other person: “I told one of my mates … he was a bit incredulous and a bit envious, too.”

While Mr Allen acknowledges his work is not the sort of job you want everyone knowing about, he has grappled with the idea of coming clean with his two adults sons.

“I’m in a quandary,” he said. “I’ve considered sitting them down and telling them. Alternatively, when I kick the bucket, they’ll go through my paperwork and discover for themselves.

“Either way, I hope they have a good chuckle.”

* not his real name

Henry Sapiecha