Internal documents from a company owned by one of Donald Trump’s top fundraisers suggest the company tried to sell social media surveillance tools to repressive regimes in order to spy on “detractors.”
The Intercept reported Friday that Circinus, a shady firm owned by felon GOP megadonor Elliott Broidy, drafted a series of pitches to Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Romania and Cyprus touting the company’s internet-mining tools aimed at detecting “detractors.” As the report noted, the governments of the UAE and Tunisia in particular are known for their repressive crackdowns on dissidents.
While it remains unclear “if the pitches were actually presented to any or all of the countries in question,” the report cited a New York Times investigation from March of this year identifying two of the countries — Romania and Tunisia — as potential Circinus clients based on meetings Broidy had with their officials. The GOP donor was also said to have communicated with other individuals about his desire to do business with the UAE.
In the presentations from 2016 and 2017, Circinus bragged about its ability to acquire open-source intelligence (referred to as “OSINT”) from users’ social media profiles and other public parts of their digital footprints.
“This is a flashy way of describing information that can be freely accessed online, such as tweets, blog posts, and any other content not locked behind a password,” the report noted. “Although typically not as sensitive as the content people keep stored privately, internet users frequently leave trails of “open source” breadcrumbs across the web that can be used for compromising purposes.”
“If it is on the World Wide Web,” one of the company’s pitches, intended for the government of Cyprus, read, “it can be ingested by the Circinus Open Source Analytics Center’s analytical platform.”
The compiling of open-source data recently stirred controversy when a programmer wrote code that scraped LinkedIn for information on Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees, compiling it all in one document. The resulting database contained the listed employees’ names, photos and cities, and was taken offline by a number of sites hosting it after public outcry.
Cambridge Analytica, a shady data firm employed by Trump’s presidential campaign along with other GOP campaigns, also sold its clients information gleaned from social media “scraping.”
In a statement to The Intercept, Circinus “would not comment on the authenticity of the documents without being provided with full copies, but did characterize the pitches as having been ‘stolen,'” the report noted.