By Patrick McGuire
It was announced on Wednesday morning that Barrett Brown, a man who became a very public talking head for AnonOps (the brain trust that is arguably the cortex of the hacktivist group Anonymous, even though there technically isn’t one) is facing up to 100 years in jail for three separate indictments. Two of the indictments—the threatening of an FBI officer in a YouTube video and the concealing of evidence—do not seem worthy of such a harsh sentence, consideringa man in Houston recieved only 42 months for threatening to blow up an FBI building, and a former dentist got 18 months for threatening to kill an FBI agent. The third, however, pertains to Barrett Brown's pasting of a link in an Anonymous IRC chat room to a document full of credit card numbers and their authentication codes that was stolen from the security company Stratfor, in the midst of a hack that released over five million internal emails. Those emails were published to Wikileaks. Some writers have rightfully raised their concerns about the legalities behind sharing a link that points to stolen material (which is why I have not linked to those five million emails) and whether or not that should be an indictable offense. However, Barrett’s work and research into Stratfor tells a much more complicated and disturbing story than a pile of stolen Visa cards.
Video of Barrett Brown being arrested
Barrett Brown Busted: In the middle of a TinyChat, the FBI walk in and arrest the Anonymous hacker/journalist/fameball. The real action starts at about 1:31 for the impatient.
It’s obvious by looking at the most recent posts on Barrett Brown’s blog that while he is highly interested in Stratfor, it wasn’t the credit card information that motivated him. When those five million emails leaked, a product called TrapWire, which was created by a company called Abraxas, was revealed to the public at large. And it caused a media shitstorm. In 2005, the founder of Abraxas and former head of the CIA’s European division, Richard Helms, described TrapWire as software that is installed inside of surveillance camera systems that is, “more accurate than facial recognition” with the ability to “draw patterns, and do threat assessments of areas that may be under observation from terrorists.” As Russia Today reported, one of the leaked emails, allegedly written by Stratfor’s VP of Intelligence, Fred Burton, stated that TrapWire was at “high-value targets” in “the UK, Canada, Vegas, Los Angeles, NYC.”
Now, the TrapWire software has largely been dismissed as, nothing to “freak out” over and that hopefully is the case. However, far beyond what the surveillance software itself can or can’t do, the revelation that TrapWire exists has caused a chain reaction of discoveries that have seemingly revealed a mob of very powerful cybersecurity firms.
Barrett Brown was doing some very serious investigating into a company called Cubic from San Diego, that was alleged to own TrapWire as a subsidiary of their firm. This is an allegation that they officially denied. However, these tax filings from 2010 that Barrett uncovered clearly state that Cubic had in fact merged with Abraxas Corporation. If you click through and take a look, you can see that Richard Helms’s name is right there on the top of the first page.
Alongside Abraxas and Cubic on those tax filings is another company called Ntrepid. According to Florida State’s records of corporations, Richard Helms is the director of that company. In 2011, Barrett’s work helped lead the Guardian to their report that Ntrepid won a $2.76 million-dollar contract from Centcom (U.S. Central Command), to create “online persona management” software, also known as “sockpuppetry.” To break it down in plain English, online persona management was created to populate social networks with a bunch of fake and believable social media personas to “influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.”
Ntrepid also has a product they call Tartan, that’s detailed in this internal presentation hosted by the Wall Street Journal. In Ntrepid’s own parlance, they describe Tartan as a program that can “Analyze illicit organizations and less structured social networks by identifying: Ranks of influence within human networks… [and can] end the use of [online] aliases.” Clearly they are looking to dismantle the smoke and mirrors that groups like Anonymous maintain, by hanging out in chatrooms where they do not need to identify themselves officially, with many private communications happening at once. This creates a difficult to penetrate den, where people can easily hide online. Evidently, Ntrepid is seeking to pull all of that apart with Tartan.
In another document on Ntrepid letterhead, titled “Tartan Influence Model: Anarchist Groups,” Tartan is positioned as a software tool that can help combat domestic protestors who operate in “an amorphous network of anarchist and protest groups” and suggests that these groups are prone to violence. They name Occupy Wall Street and Occupy D.C. as part of the problem, and have “built Occupy networks through online communication with anarchists.” By identifying the threat of anarchistic, supposedly violent protestors, Tartan sells its services by saying their software “identifies the hidden relationships among organizers of seemingly unrelated movements… To mitigate the ability of anarchists to incite violence… Law enforcement must identify the complex network of relationships among anarchist leaders.” So, beyond taking apart movements that exist solely online, Tartan is looking to come out and crush real world protest movements as well.
A lot of this information and the connections between it all would not be easy to figure out were it not for Barrett Brown. For one, Barrett started ProjectPM, a wiki that is completely dedicated to piecing together all of this information about surveillance companies in the United States. He even got on the phone with a representative at Cubic to tell them that their company was full of liars and that they do in fact own TrapWire. Without Barrett Brown, tons of this research would likely have gone unearthed. Besides a few journalists, not many people have been looking into this information. The one other group that does is called Telecomix, the guys who are famous for supplying dial-up internet lines to areas of the world with oppressive dictatorships, and who I interviewed about the Gaza conflict here. They operate the Bluecabinet Wiki, and they worked very closely with Barrett Brown to uncover more information about the network of cybersecurity firms.
I talked to one of the volunteers at Telecomix, who strongly believes in the work that Barrett did to connect all of these very confusing dots: “I haven't seen reporters really taking a hard look at what Barrett Brown, the investigative journalist, was researching and where it leads to. His discovery that TrapWire = Abraxas and that there is CIA involvement is very important. Do you know in Berlin right now a game was started to destroy surveillance cameras in public places? Barrett apparently was reading through the emails of HBGary and Stratfor, linking the data to the specific surveillance companies and contractors… It is an extremely time consuming task.”
Barrett Brown was not a hacker. He did not infiltrate any systems, nor did he appear to know how to do anything of the sort (he did try to take down the Mexican drug cartels in 2011, but that is a whole other story). Barrett was an investigative journalist who has been published in theGuardian, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and Business Week. He closely (perhaps too closely) aligned himself with Anonymous, and dug into some very serious, complicated, and high-level issues pertaining to the future of America’s cyberwar conquests. In light of recent news that the Pentagon wants 4,000 new “hackers for cyber command,” it’s clear that the US’ infrastructure for private cyber defense companies is only growing, and their motives are oftentimes confusing and frightening.
Clearly there is so much more to the Stratfor leak than a bunch of credit card numbers—and the truth behind it all, along with Barrett Brown’s possible century-long jail sentence—is a scary prospect for journalists, privacy advocates, and internet activists alike. As Barrett Brown himself said regarding the leak of Stratfor emails and the credit card numbers within them that some hackers from Anonymous used to donate money to charities: “Much of the media has focused on the fact that some participants in the attack chose to use obtained customer credit card numbers to make donations to charitable causes. Although this aspect of the operation is indeed newsworthy, and, like all things, should be scrutinized and criticized as necessary, the original purpose and ultimate consequence of the operation has been largely ignored.”
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire