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28 Feb, 2024 14:47

US intel tried to track Putin – Wired

A tech firm devised a new surveillance tool under the auspices of the CIA and Pentagon, the media outlet has claimed, citing a new book
US intel tried to track Putin – Wired

A US tech firm with close ties to the CIA and the Pentagon used a powerful tool to try to track the movements of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wired has claimed, citing a new book by former Wall Street Journal reporter Byron Tau.

The company, PlanetRisk, reportedly created the tool – originally named Locomotive but later rebranded as VISR (Virtual Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) – to tap into geolocation data used by digital advertisers, and was supposedly able to snoop on people close to the Russian president, thus gaining information on his whereabouts.

In its long-read on Tuesday, based on Tau’s ‘Means of Control: How the Hidden Alliance of Tech and Government Is Creating a New American Surveillance State’, Wired reported that researcher Mike Yeagley first became aware of the potential usefulness of large pools of data collected by certain apps in the mid-2010s. Tech companies were already routinely gathering the information and were willing to sell to any advertiser prepared to pay a relatively modest fee for the service, making it a particularly promising area, the report claimed.

According to the book, Yeagley, “who specialized in obtaining unique data sets for government agencies,” first experimented with geofences – virtual boundaries in geographical data sets – to track down employees of US government agencies. The method reportedly proved highly successful in terms of harvesting personal data on staff who used dating and weather apps, as well as games that require the user’s location.    

In 2015, Yeagley was allegedly hired by PlaceIQ after the company received an “investment from the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel.” He then reportedly moved on to another obscure start-up, PlanetRisk.

“The CIA was interested in software that could analyze and understand the geographic movement of people and things,” the book explained.

During its trial period, the Locomotive tool was used to follow in near real time the movements of people in Syria, which was in the midst of a civil war. That included some US special forces operatives secretly deployed to the country, Tau wrote.

“After acquiring a data set on Russia, the team realized they could track phones in the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage,” the book claimed, as cited by Wired.

While none of the devices in question could be linked to the Russian leader personally, PlanetRisk believed it had access to the smart phones that “belonged to the drivers, the security personnel, the political aides, and other support staff around the Russian president,” according to the account. These people were allegedly “trackable in the advertising data,” supposedly meaning that Putin’s routes and locations could be identified.

According to the book, US government agencies were highly impressed with Yeagley’s work, with Locomotive – and later VISR – being adopted “as part of an interagency program.”

Tau claimed, however, that other entities, most notably Israeli ones, have since built their own tracking tools using the same principles. These are reportedly now available to a far wider range of clients globally, rather than just US intelligence agencies.