US Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (pictured), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, recently confirmed that state and federal governments regularly purchase Americans’ personal data from private companies, so that they may “spy on and track the activities of U.S. citizens.” No kind of personal information is off-limits. Government agents use data brokers to collect information on an individual’s GPS location, mobile phone movements, medical prescriptions, religious affiliations, sexual practices, and much more. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” That rhetorical gem, credited to various scientists and political leaders, shows up on mouse pads and posters and wherever else suitable inspiration is found wanting. It is also a remarkably accurate mission statement for two professions: financial investors and spies. In both occupations, a person is rewarded for either (1) collecting and processing enough available information to predict future events or (2) creating a set of preconditions that will make future events all but certain.
Any financial analyst who foresaw the likelihood of a global pandemic before the outbreak of COVID-19 could have made a fortune investing in the right pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, regardless of Pfizer’s motivations for doing so, its funding of numerous nonprofit organizations that actively pushed for COVID-19 vaccine mandates also benefited its bottom line. You could say that both market mavens and intelligence operatives invest heavily in creating a desired reality that will yield dividends. By successfully creating the future, prophets can turn profits.
It should be no surprise, then, that intelligence gathering and information warfare are just as prevalent in the corporate sphere as in the covert one. Nothing benefits investors more lucratively than the acquisition and use of market knowledge before anyone else, as can reportedly be seen from the investments of the family of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul, as well as others in government (here, here and here).
In the worlds of financing and espionage, the game is the same: stay ahead of competitors. What this means in practice is netting as much information about adversaries and allies as possible. In order to decide whether to double-down on an investment or run for cover, an analyst is interested in the likelihood of a company’s technological success, the risk of other investors swooping in and staking a claim, the potential for competing companies to introduce similar products, and the probability that regulatory authorities might act in ways that affect the company’s future profitability. You have to keep an eye on your company, its competitors, your rivals, and any number of government agencies. The complexity of such an arrangement is why private intelligence services are regularly used to monitor all these variables, collect information, analyze risks, and propose solutions.
What might a “proposed solution” to an intelligence problem look like? It could mean tracking the private flight paths of other potential investors to determine whether they are making a play that could either weaken your relative ownership share or harm its ultimate profitability. It could mean paying close attention to arcane public testimony delivered at some congressional subcommittee hearing involving little-known regulatory bodies in hopes that future government interactions with your emerging market can be lobbied or surmised. Intelligence collection starts at this basic level and goes as deeply as private intelligence operators and their clients are willing to go.
If information collection and analysis help to predict future events, information warfare can then help to shape those future events. The line separating advertising and public relations campaigns from corporate-sanctioned propaganda is thin. Did the star of a new movie wear a particular brand of sneakers because it is his favorite footwear or because the company behind the sneakers has a sister company producing the film or because the footwear firm is paying for the shot. Did a large newspaper run front-page stories about a politician’s affair because it is national news or because damaging that politician’s credibility will make it more difficult for the committee he chairs to hold the newspaper’s largest shareholder accountable for regulatory infractions in an unrelated industry? Do companies release “woke” commercials that hurt their bottom lines because professional public relations firms misread consumer opinion or because doing so shields corporate board members from potential discrimination lawsuits? Does the government incentivize Americans’ purchase of electric vehicles because doing so will “save the planet” or because the industry players most likely to gain financially from environmental mandates have filled legislators’ campaign coffers and family foundations to the hilt?
Make no mistake: corporations are heavily invested in shaping the perceptions, beliefs, and expectations of the public in ways that will bring financial reward. Information warfare beyond mere advertising is all around. That is the situation whether the product is a new line of stealth aircraft for the next war, a new pharmaceutical product that markets itself as essential for saving lives, or a new kind of sugar-free cookie made popular by online “influencers” who say dessert helped them lose weight.
If even the most harmless-sounding doll company has an incentive to gather and shape public information, consider the incentives of companies that generate revenue entirely from the collection and use of personal data. Advertisers seeking to influence consumer behavior are interested not only in a potential buyer’s likes and dislikes but also in all the life patterns that might be exploited to reach that buyer’s mind. When social media users tag everything they see, hear, and read with actual “likes” or “dislikes,” that job becomes much easier. If a company’s target demographic is middle-class moms, and social media traffic shows that middle-class moms are primarily concerned about the same issue, then corporate advertisers will mold commercials that reflect concern for that issue, as well. Location data can also be bought directly from cellular networks or messaging apps. A significant percentage of these moms train at karate dojos. Corporate advertisers now know the best way to influence future buying behavior is to advertise near or in partnership with martial arts schools. Unsuspecting martial arts mothers are flooded with targeted messaging when they would least expect it.
Companies that collect raw data specifically so that it might be analyzed and used to influence consumer behavior rake in big bucks as private spies. Almost all private companies have now entered the “spy business.” What clothing fashions catch your eye? Are you more or less inclined to make a purchase near a food court? Do your purchases, when combined with those of millions of others, reveal that people who like convertible cars prefer a particular brand of camping equipment?
No matter how tiny, every piece of data can be significant. That is why data collection is not the exclusive purview of credit card, social media, and mobile phone companies but rather part of the regular business model of any company making a buck. In the old days, television and movie studios wanted to know what you watch; today, everybody wants to know what you watch, what you like, what you do, where you go, and with whom you go there. In turn, all this information is ultimately used to manipulate human behavior.
Corporate espionage is pervasive. It occurs between competing companies; it is conducted against unsuspecting consumers; it has spawned an enormously profitable market for the collection and sale of every crumb of personal data in which even the smallest businesses regularly engage. Just as in the world of covert spies, the tools of the trade are (1) information gathering and (2) information warfare.
Does it then seem reasonable that so much corporate espionage could exist without attracting the interests of government intelligence services?
US Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, recently confirmed that state and federal governments regularly purchase Americans’ personal data from private companies, so that they may “spy on and track the activities of U.S. citizens.” No kind of personal information is off-limits. Government agents use data brokers to collect information on an individual’s GPS location, mobile phone movements, medical prescriptions, religious affiliations, sexual practices, and much more. It is the type of total surveillance, Rodgers alleged, that “you would expect out of the Chinese Communist Party surveillance state, not in America.” Yet it is all arguably legal or in an unregulated gray zone.
Given the government’s interest in spying on its citizens without the need for either demonstrating probable cause or securing particularized warrants, it seems unlikely that anything will change soon. During an April 18 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Senator Rand Paul accused DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of ignoring foreign threats and abusing the agency’s powers to “expand social media censorship of Americans using third-party nonprofits as… a clearinghouse for information to avoid the appearance of government propaganda.” Furthermore, Paul continued, “A report published last month by the Brennan Center for Justice found at least twelve overlapping DHS programs for tracking what Americans are saying online,” demonstrating that DHS had, “veered from its original counterterrorism mission into tracking social and political movements and monitoring First Amendment-protected activity of American citizens.”
In a particularly shocking example that seemed eerily reminiscent of atrocities committed by Hitler Youth chapters during the 1930s or young schoolchildren during China’s Cultural Revolution, Paul noted:
“In 2021, DHS even put out a video encouraging children to report their own family members to Facebook for disinformation if they challenge the U.S. government narratives on COVID-19.”
Paul is right to argue that these kinds of corporate-government partnerships used to surveil and influence American citizens “should terrify all of us,” but would enough lawmakers ever actually agree to handcuff the government from seeking and utilizing the enormous tranche of personal information collected and sold by private companies and data brokers? Right now, after all, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is busy capitalizing on recent Pentagon leaks to advance the RESTRICT Act, a piece of legislation that would give the Executive Branch even greater authority to track online communication and label information shared on the Internet as “dangerous.” Known derisively as an “online Patriot Act,” that power grab would come in handy for the government’s domestic surveillance operations during an era when former FBI, CIA, NSA, and DHS spooks are filling the ranks of social media companies and the FBI continues to flag more words as online evidence of potential “violent extremism.”
Rodgers and Paul aside, neither First Amendment considerations nor any respect for Americans’ privacy and liberty appear to be of much concern for politicians or spy agencies. Not only are most lawmakers leery of interfering with intelligence collection practices when they can later be condemned for having endangered American security, but also they often find some kind of personal benefit for looking past constitutional concerns. After all, analysis shows that dozens of members of Congress and their families recently sold off bank shares while they were actively meeting with regulators amid the volatile financial climate prompted by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. When information collection leads to power and profit, only the rare politician would dare get in the way.
Now consider just how instrumental private companies have become for intelligence collection and analysis. The U.S. government has granted top-secret security clearance to an astonishingly large number of employees and contractors — over 1.25 million as of today. Yet every private company monitoring, tracking, recording, and influencing consumers is in the spy business just the same. The business of data brokers is booming. Even more telling, private sector demand for former government spies is great. The private espionage field in which corporations and governments use operatives-for-hire under scant regulatory oversight is growing exponentially. As part of the military’s “signature reduction” program, the Pentagon even regularly hides forces carrying out clandestine assignments within private companies under false names. Due to the government’s increased reliance on contractors, a small number of corporate firms now dominate the private intelligence industry.
You put all these trends together and you get an expansive corporate-government partnership with vast surveillance powers conducting domestic espionage on American citizens — free from legal scrutiny and done in the name of “national security.” Every company is an information asset. A growing industry dedicated to private data collection accrues vast wealth and untold secrets. At the top of this private espionage pyramid sit a small number of firms that directly feed intelligence agencies and lawmakers with the information they will use to interpret threats and make policy.
Never have the worlds of covert espionage and financial investment been so integrated. With a shared purpose of profiting from the collection of private information, both corporate spies and government spooks seek to predict the future by directly shaping it. The rest of us, however, are merely the things being shaped.