Updated 3:48 p.m.
Ever since WikiLeaks began releasing a series of documents about the surveillance system Trapwire, there’s been a panicked outcry over this supposedly all-seeing, revolutionary spy network. In fact, there are any number of companies that say they comb through video feeds or suspicious activity reports in largely the same way that Trapwire claims to do. What’s truly extraordinary about Trapwire was how it was marketed by the private intelligence firm Stratfor, whose internal e-mails WikiLeaks exposed.
The documents show Stratfor being less than straight with its clients, using temporary jobs in government to set up Trapwire contracts, and calling it all a “wet dream.” In their e-mails, executives at Stratfor may have been hyping up a surveillance technology. But what they really did was provide reconnaissance on the $25 billion world of intelligence-for-hire that’s ordinarily hidden from public view. In this case, the sunlight isn’t particularly flattering.
On Nov. 4, 2009, Fred Burton, the vice president of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, co-wrote an essay on emerging terrorist threats and the means to stop them. Particularly impressive, Burton wrote, was a new software tool called Trapwire, which works “with camera systems to help detect patterns of preoperational surveillance … to help cut through the fog of noise and activity and draw attention to potential threats.”
The essay was typical of the trend analyses, news summaries, and hot tips that Strator provides every day to its customers in government and in industry. For these services, Burton’s clients pay his firm handsomely; a single Stratfor enterprise license costs more than $20,000 (.pdf). These customers rely on Burton and his team to provide the latest word from flashpoints worldwide — and to explain what this torrent of information all means. They count on Stratfor to help make sense of the world.
What his customers reading that November 2009 essay may not have realized was that Burton was also marketing them a product. On Aug. 17 of that year, Stratfor and Trapwire signed a contract (.pdf) giving Burton’s company an 8 percent referral fee for any business they send Trapwire’s way. The essay was partially a sales pitch — a fact that Burton neglected to mention.
After the November 2009 essay, Burton told a fellow Stratfor executive: “I plugged TrapWire in our weekly [report] that has gone out to thousands…. Hopefully, it would generate some business.”
That’s a breach of trust and possibly worse, says Matthew Aid, author of Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror. “It’s a conflict of interest.”
“If I was one of Stratfor’s business clientele or government clientele, I’d be a little alarmed or a little confused or both,” adds Aid, a former executive at the private intelligence firm Kroll Associates. ”If you don’t tell the people who are paying for your products caveat emptor [buyer beware] … that’s constructive fraud, to use a legal term.”
Trapwire did not immediately respond to e-mail and telephone inquiries from Danger Room. Stratfor declined to comment.