Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Anyone else remember cyberpunk?

Specifically the sci fi genre typical of which is William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy.

One of the particular items of cyberpunk fiction that caught my interest as a youth was the idea of the Orwellian power of the heads of society, but the twist was it wasn't governments that had become Orwellian but multinational corporations.

Great fiction. It's become fact.

This article in Conde Nast Portfolio details the post cold war and post 9/11 rise of the corporate intelligence agency.

Largely overlooked in the furor was the role that Wal-Mart's internal security department had played in digging up the salacious details. This department, a global operation, was headed by a former senior security officer for the Central Intelligence Agency and staffed by former agents from the C.I.A., the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other government agencies. (See our Spy Slang guide) A person familiar with the episode said in an interview that an ex-C.I.A. computer specialist was involved in piecing together the email evidence—which included copies of Womack's private Gmail messages, provided by his estranged wife—and that another former government agent had supervised the overall investigation.

This isn't to say this activity is illegal; far from it, it seems that for the most part this activity is well within the law.

For instance, installing a keyboard monitor on corporate owned hardware is hardly an invasion of privacy. Most people, as a condition of employment, agree to such monitoring anyway. If that happens to capture your gmail password..

Similarly, techniques like this:

At Diligence, a New York private-investigation firm founded by former C.I.A. and British agents, ex-intelligence officers have taught newcomers how to construct false identities by using fake business cards, creating phony websites, and directing incoming calls to cell phones reserved for each separate identity. "You are establishing a cover, like in the C.I.A.," said a former Diligence employee, adding that there are people who know investigators only by their phony identities.

Aren't illegal. While there are laws against fraud, they don't apply if you're not trying to get any money from the target of your deception.

I'll expect you've heard of dumpster diving. Not popular, but at least some consider it effective, albeit a bit sleezy:

Even some of the legal methods are controversial within the industry. Certain old-school firms won't stoop to dumpster diving or stealing garbage—which is usually legal as long as the trash is on a curb or other public property—because they consider it unethical.

Outside of techniques, this really caught my eye:

"The private sector has virtually all the same techniques as the government," Devine told me. A favorite haunt for former American spies is the elegantly appointed dining room of the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner in McLean, Virginia, a short drive from the cafeteria they used to patronize at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley.

Perhaps Gibson got it right. It seems that the private sector now has an intelligence capability focused on their needs. That makes me wonder how much else of Gibson's vision could, or will, become reality.

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