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Surveillance Company Banjo Used a Secret Company and Fake Apps To Scrape Social Media

Banjo, an artificial intelligence firm that works with police used a shadow company to create an array of Android and iOS apps that looked innocuous but were specifically designed to secretly scrape social media. The news signifies an abuse of data by a government contractor, with Banjo going far beyond what companies which scrape social networks usually do. Banjo created a secret company named Pink Unicorn Labs, according to three former Banjo employees, with two of them adding that the company developed the apps. This was done to avoid detection by social networks, two of the former employees said.

Three of the apps created by Pink Unicorn Labs were called “One Direction Fan App,” “EDM Fan App,” and “Formula Racing App.” Motherboard found these three apps on archive sites and downloaded and analyzed them, as did an independent expert. The apps — which appear to have been originally compiled in 2015 and were on the Play Store until 2016 according to Google — outwardly had no connection to Banjo, but an analysis of its code indicates connections to the company. This aspect of Banjo’s operation has some similarities with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with multiple sources comparing the two incidents. […] The company has not publicly explained how it specifically scrapes social media apps. Motherboard found the apps developed by Pink Unicorn Labs included code mentioning signing into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Russian social media app VK, FourSquare, Google Plus, and Chinese social network Sina Weibo.
The apps could have scraped social media “by sending the saved login token to a server for Banjo to use later, or by using the app itself to scrape information,” reports Motherboard, noting that it’s not entirely clear which method Banjo used. “Motherboard found that the apps when opened made web requests to the domain ‘pulapi.com,’ likely referring to Pink Unicorn Labs, but the site that would provide a response to the app is currently down.”

Last weekend, Motherboard reported that Banjo signed a $20.7 million contract with Utah in 2019 that granted the company access to the state’s traffic, CCTV, and public safety cameras. “Banjo promises to combine that input with a range of other data such as satellites and social media posts to create a system that it claims alerts law enforcement of crimes or events in real-time.”