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The US Navy Bought Surveillance Data Through Adtech Company Owned by Military Contractor Which Harvests Location Data From Smartphones

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A report from 404 Media, for the most part based on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, has put the pieces of a puzzle together to reveal that the US Navy was in business with an adtech company – that “just” happened to be owned by a major military contractor.

The company, nContext, is owned by Sierra Nevada Corporation, and what this triangle of surveillance was “keeping in the family” is the business of personal data changing hands, and reportedly, global (globally collected) data, at that.

Related: Exposing the Invisible: How Online Advertising Is Behind Sensitive Personal Data Being Tracked and Sold Online

404 Media writes that the public records it has seen show that the Navy was able to use a software tool (called, the Sierra Nevada nContext Vanir) that the US Department of Defense (Pentagon) uses for its surveillance operations around the world.

nContext, supposedly in the adtech (i.e., marketing) business, is behind developing that tool. However, the publicly available documents do not detail what kind of data the company had at its disposal, that was up for sale.

Above all, this is yet another example of how the ad industry – supposedly innocuous, other than for the suspicious amount of money it generates – actually can, and does at times work in insidious ways.

With this context in mind, the complexity and murkiness of the industry is perhaps not haphazard, but there to muddle up things as much as possible: because what this case shows is that an ad company can be collecting people’s data, allegedly for ad purposes (in and of itself, a highly controversial business) – but it then also gets available to all sorts of contractors, including those working closely with the US government, including the military and law enforcement.

The big picture: a government/country that is actively creating workarounds around its own laws and Constitution, which are supposed to mandate protecting citizens (including their right to privacy) – in this case, their private digital data.

“Crucially, when government agencies buy this data from a commercial entity, they can bypass legal restrictions put in place to protect the transfer and use of that information” – is how 404 Media describes this in its report.

In the specific case explored here, and in some previous Wall Street Journal articles, it appears that the information in question is location data taken from people’s phones and computers.

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