Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I don't think you want to download their app

Via Noah at Wired, nice work if you can get it.
When trading ended Tuesday night at the New York Stock Exchange, the closing bell wasn’t rung by a titan of finance or an imported celebrity. It was sounded by the CEO of an obscure defense firm with deep ties to the U.S. intelligence and special operations communities. The traders on the floor may not have recognized Mary Margaret “Peggy” Styer. But her company’s products are well known by the small group of commandos and spies who hunt down top terrorists.

Over the last decade Styer’s company, the Virginia-based Blackbird Technologies, has become a leading supplier of equipment for the covert “tagging, tracking and locating” of suspected enemies. Every month, U.S. Special Operations Command spends millions of dollars on Blackbird gear. The U.S. Navy has a contract with Blackbird for $450 million worth of these so-called “TTL” devices. “Tens of thousands” of Blackbird’s devices have been sent to the field, according to a former employee. And TTL is just one part of the Herndon, Virginia firm’s multifaceted relationship with the special operations, intelligence and traditional military services.
One U.S. Special Operations Command shopping list for Blackbird’s “close access persistent surveillance equipment,” issued on Sept. 15, 2009, gives a sense of how widespread the company’s gear was used. The list included 363 iBat, iFox and Outlaw tracking devices; 1,355,000 “beacons” from those devices; 110,000 “shots” to the Globalstar communications satellite; 393,000 SMS messages (including 135,000 on Blackbird’s “secure TTL server”); radio frequency transmitters, terminals for the CDMA and GSM 3G cellular networks; and 135 HTC smartphones. Fifteen days later, the Command announced it would spend $3.6 million on the equipment.

Blackbird doesn’t just track targets. Once that person is located, Blackbird specialists also work to unlock the data from his or her computers, discs and drives. “Like, if you found Osama’s laptop,” a former employee says. (The interview was conducted before the raid on bin Laden’s compound. Since then, Blackbird hasn’t responded to multiple requests to comment for this story.)

According to the Washington Post, Blackbird developed “a compact, rugged, powerful, all-in-one kit” to pull out this information. “Its capabilities include detection of chemical and biological agents, extraction from cellphones and PDAs, scanning and translation of documents, computer forensics, collection and transmission of biometric data, and digital photography.”
You want kids to get interested in science and engineering? Give them projects like that!

NB: If you are wondering what the title is about and you have a smartphone, just do a search for the app based on the title of the Wired article. Don't ask how I know, I won't tell you if you do. No, I won't apologize for sending you there.

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