Daily Digest (7/22)

US Researchers Monitor Russian Military Sites Using Location Data; DHS Authorizes Surveillance to Protect US Statues and Monuments; Privacy Claims on Mask Questions Unfounded; FBI Secretly Using a $2 Billion Travel Company as Global Surveillance Tool. Click “Continue reading” below.

US Researchers Monitor Russian Military Sites Using Location Data

Researchers at Mississippi State University last year used commercially available location data, collected and used for marketing purposes, to monitor Russian military sites, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The team pulled data from sensitive locations, including drone-test facilities and numerous U.S. and foreign embassies.

The data they used was GPS location information usually drawn from cellphone apps — typically from games and weather services — and is collected and made available for purchase by the advertising industry.

The platform they used is employed by law enforcement, military, private companies and intelligence agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to the report.

At one location, the Nyonoksa Missile Test Site in northern Russia, the group identified 48 mobile devices present on Aug. 9, a day after a mysterious radiation spike there generated international headlines and widespread speculation that a Russian missile test had gone wrong.

The Mississippi team was working on an unclassified, experimental project sponsored by the U.S. Army that sought to leverage “open-source” commercial data for intelligence purposes.

The team’s monitoring efforts were described in detail in unclassified documents obtained by the Journal from Mississippi State via state open-records laws.

“This project has served as a great opportunity for both undergraduate and graduate students at MSU to develop real-world skills and knowledge that will benefit them greatly as they seek employment in the future,” David May, the principal investigator on the study and a Mississippi State sociology professor, told the Journal.

Edric Thompson, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, which paid for the project, said it was selected for military funding because it had “good potential use for being able for our soldiers to share information with each other.”

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DHS Authorizes Surveillance to Protect US Statues and Monuments

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Intelligence & Analysis is “collecting and reporting on various activities in the context of elevated threats targeting monuments, memorials, and statues,” according to a document provided over the weekend to the Lawfare blog.

The document also offered legal guidance concerning the “expanded intelligence activities necessary to mitigate the significant threat to homeland security” posed by such activities.

The three-page non-classified document is titled “Job Aid: DHS Office of Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) Activities in Furtherance of Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, Statues, and Combatting Recent Criminal Violence.”

Each of the document’s three pages is headed “UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY.” It also indicated that some intelligence personnel have been tasked with monitoring and collecting information on some protest activities.

“We got intelligence about planned attacks on federal facilities,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting DHS deputy secretary, told CNN Monday regarding the demonstrations in Portland, Ore., over the weekend.

Federal agents fired tear gas on protesters during the activities.

“If we get the same kind of intelligence in other places about threats to other facilities or officers, we would respond the same way,” he said.

The memo, however, made clear that the authorized intelligence activity covered significantly more than just planned attacks on federal personnel or facilities.

It also appeared to also include planned vandalism of confederate (and other historical) monuments and statues, whether federally owned or not.

DHS did not respond to a voicemail and email seeking comment.

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Privacy Claims on Mask Questions Unfounded

USA Today has debunked claims that the Americans with Disabilities Act provides blanket protection from rules that require mask-wearing.

The law does not allow anyone, disabled or otherwise, to ignore mask requirements without other precautions being taken.

Numerous businesses have taken to social media to say that federal HIPAA laws, along with the Fourth or Fifth amendments, do not require companies to ask people why they are not wearing a face mask

HIPAA regulates healthcare coverage and the protection of health information, said Alan Meisel, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The protection of health information afforded by HIPAA’s privacy rule applies only to health information that is in the possession of what the law refers to as ‘covered entities,’” Meisel told the newspaper. 

Covered entities include health plans, healthcare clearinghouses and healthcare providers that conduct transactions electronically, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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FBI Secretly Using a $2 Billion Travel Company as Global Surveillance Tool

While U.S. Border Patrol has significant surveillance powers and collects vast amounts of data on who is flying into and out of the country, the little-known but influential Texan business called Sabre most likely is collecting even more data.

As the biggest of three companies that store most of the world’s travel information, from airline seats to hotel bookings, Sabre has been called on to hand over travelers’ data and, on at least one occasion, do “real-time” tracking of a suspect, Forbes reports.

And, say former employees, the same powerful trove of information could be used to help monitor the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sabre processes well over a third of all air travel bookings in the world, totaling more than $260 billion in global travel spent annually. It has 9,000 employees, though workers are being laid off and Sabre’s value has dipped because of the pandemic.

Still, it’s the largest of three players who dominate the hidden connecting tissue of the travel market — known as “global distribution systems” — with the others being Madrid-based Amadeus and the British Travelport.

Together, they sit on huge networks and databases full of information on the world’s travel plans: itineraries, fares, reservations, connecting flights and ticket costs are all there, as are crew schedules and other logistical information.

“They have (built) up humongous databases,” Gloria Guevara, former CEO of Sabre’s Mexican business, now chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), told Forbes.

She recalls that when she was at Sabre, between 1995 and 2010, it had one of the top two largest privately-owned databases in the world.

“They could tell you where (a traveler) came from and the flight that they were on, where they were sitting,” said Jim Menge, another former Sabre VP from 1994 to 2004. “Sabre maintains those records.”

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— By DPN Staff