How the Pentagon Learned To Use Targeted Ads To Find Its Targets

In 2019, a government contractor and technologist named Mike Yeagley began making the rounds in Washington, DC. He had a blunt warning for anyone in the country’s national security establishment who would listen: The US government had a Grindr problem. A popular dating and hookup app, Grindr relied on the GPS capabilities of modern smartphones to connect potential partners in the same city, neighborhood, or even building. The app can show how far away a potential partner is in real time, down to the foot. But to Yeagley, Grindr was something else: one of the tens of thousands of carelessly designed mobile phone apps that leaked massive amounts of data into the opaque world of online advertisers. That data, Yeagley knew, was easily accessible by anyone with a little technical know-how. So Yeagley — a technology consultant then in his late forties who had worked in and around government projects nearly his entire career — made a PowerPoint presentation and went out to demonstrate precisely how that data was a serious national security risk.

As he would explain in a succession of bland government conference rooms, Yeagley was able to access the geolocation data on Grindr users through a hidden but ubiquitous entry point: the digital advertising exchanges that serve up the little digital banner ads along the top of Grindr and nearly every other ad-supported mobile app and website. This was possible because of the way online ad space is sold, through near-instantaneous auctions in a process called real-time bidding. Those auctions were rife with surveillance potential. You know that ad that seems to follow you around the internet? It’s tracking you in more ways than one. In some cases, it’s making your precise location available in near-real time to both advertisers and people like Mike Yeagley, who specialized in obtaining unique data sets for government agencies.

Working with Grindr data, Yeagley began drawing geofences — creating virtual boundaries in geographical data sets — around buildings belonging to government agencies that do national security work. That allowed Yeagley to see what phones were in certain buildings at certain times, and where they went afterwards. He was looking for phones belonging to Grindr users who spent their daytime hours at government office buildings. If the device spent most workdays at the Pentagon, the FBI headquarters, or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency building at Fort Belvoir, for example, there was a good chance its owner worked for one of those agencies. Then he started looking at the movement of those phones through the Grindr data. When they weren’t at their offices, where did they go? A small number of them had lingered at highway rest stops in the DC area at the same time and in proximity to other Grindr users — sometimes during the workday and sometimes while in transit between government facilities. For other Grindr users, he could infer where they lived, see where they traveled, even guess at whom they were dating.

Intelligence agencies have a long and unfortunate history of trying to root out LGBTQ Americans from their workforce, but this wasn’t Yeagley’s intent. He didn’t want anyone to get in trouble. No disciplinary actions were taken against any employee of the federal government based on Yeagley’s presentation. His aim was to show that buried in the seemingly innocuous technical data that comes off every cell phone in the world is a rich story — one that people might prefer to keep quiet. Or at the very least, not broadcast to the whole world. And that each of these intelligence and national security agencies had employees who were recklessly, if obliviously, broadcasting intimate details of their lives to anyone who knew where to look. As Yeagley showed, all that information was available for sale, for cheap. And it wasn’t just Grindr, but rather any app that had access to a user’s precise location — other dating apps, weather apps, games. Yeagley chose Grindr because it happened to generate a particularly rich set of data and its user base might be uniquely vulnerable.
The report goes into great detail about how intelligence and data analysis techniques, notably through a program called Locomotive developed by PlanetRisk, enabled the tracking of mobile devices associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage. By analyzing commercial adtech data, including precise geolocation information collected from mobile advertising bid requests, analysts were able to monitor the movements of phones that frequently accompanied Putin, indicating the locations and movements of his security personnel, aides, and support staff.

This capability underscored the surveillance potential of commercially available data, providing insights into the activities and security arrangements of high-profile individuals without directly compromising their personal devices.

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