15 October 2014

Recently Facebook has been on a media offensive. They have been touting their March 28 purchase of experimental Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV, called drones) manufacturer Ascenta. Ascenta has built a solar-powered extreme endurance drone that can remain aloft at high altitude for years. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees this as the key to his dream of expanding internet access in the developing world. Facebook's planned deployment of drone-based internet will compete directly with Google's planned use of high altitude balloons to expand rural connectivity in the developing world in what it calls Project Loon. Both projects have the leave the door wide open to the surveillance state in ways that neither advertise. Ascenta's connections to the defense industry are well documented.

Facebook's plan is to have Ascenta's drones constantly circle an area at an altitude above 65,000 feet. This altitude would keep the lingering UAVs out of the way of both commercial air traffic and harmful weather. From that altitude the drones would provide a point of internet connectivity for cellular and wireless devices either directly, or via line of sight base stations. The drones would then pass traffic to each other and thence to either a satellite or internet-backbone connected base station and thence to the rest of the connected world.

Touted as a solution specifically for Africa, amongst other places, the plan would save the needless expense of providing physical internet infrastructure along with the accompanying roads, power lines and other first world amenities that would normally precede high speed connectivity into a rural market. Zuckerberg's drones will allow people in the developing world to know how long it will take their children to die from preventable disease without them ever having a hope of reaching a doctor.

While Facebook's drones provide social networking and connectivity to the developing world, they will also provide a backdoor at low cost to the NSA. The NSA has recently been castigated for the wholesale collection of internet traffic through direct access to the internet backbone in the United States and its allies. Now publicly exposed, controversial and expensive, wholesale collection in the developing world can be a more easily kept secret.

The worlds largest spy satellite, USA-232, is hovering over Sumatra in geostationary orbit. A companion satellite, USA-202, is in a geostationary orbit over a point just off the Southern coast of Somalia. Both satellites are the latest iteration of the Orion class of spy satellites, known under the code name MENTOR. The exact capabilities, specifications and even manufacturers of these satellites is highly classified. They are part of a program called Integrated Overhead Sigint Architecture (IOSA), codenamed INTRUDER, which seeks to combine two of the functions of signals intelligence (sigint), Electronic Signals Intelligence (Elint, intelligence about the characteristics of radar and other tracking systems) and Communications Intelligence (Comint), into a single satellite system.

The INTRUDER program's satellites are well placed to intercept all internet traffic between Facebook's drones and their subscribers, the drones and one another, and the drones and base stations or communication satellites. From the two positions they are in, the satellites can slurp up nearly all the traffic in Africa, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, Southern China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Australia. Facebook's drones can provide most of the global South with a level of surveillance that first world nations have come to expect and our governments hope to force us to accept.

Google's plan for connectivity in the rural developing world relies on high altitude balloons rather than solar-powered aircraft. Called Project Loon, it has been tested in New Zealand and plans to incorporate parts of Australia, Argentina and Chile when next expanded. The project consists of large helium balloons with small payloads and solar panels adjusting their altitude to maneuver East and West via wind while remaining at the same latitude. The current plans call for a string of balloons at a latitude of 40 degrees South approximately 100 kilometers apart transmitting internet traffic to and from rural users, base stations and each other. Expansion to add strings at other latitudes is apparently envisioned.

The current string is perfectly situated to be overheard from one of the largest listening posts in the world at Pine Gap Australia. The facility is operated jointly by the Australian defense ministry and the NSA and is also used to connect to spy satellites in geostationary orbit, including the new flagships of the INTRUDER program. Between the initiatives of Facebook and Google, internet connectivity without permanent infrastructure can be provided to a large part of the Earth's surface without any reasonable expectation of privacy.

Ascenta, Facebook's newly purchased drone manufacturer is no stranger to the defense and intelligence community. Ascenta began life as High Altitude Ltd., later changing its name to that of its flagship product. The company's founder, Andrew Cox, is purported to have worked on the Zephyr, a British military extreme endurance drone.

Ascenta had a hospitality suite at the 2013 Special Operations Forces Industry conference held at the Tampa Convention Center in close proximity to MacDill Air Force Base. MacDill serves as the headquarters for both CentCom (Theater Command for Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan) and the United States Special Operations Command. A call placed to company's North American spokesperson and contact for the conference, Ken Platt, yielded a terse referral to Facebook's public relations department. When asked for a number to that department Platt replied “Look it up at Facebook.com or something.” and promptly hung up.

Like Ascenta, which originally marketed its high altitude drones for surveillance, Google's contractor for its Loon balloons, Raven Aerostar, is no stranger to special operations. Raven Aerostar produces surveillance balloons for use by the US military in Afghanistan. They are used for border/port security, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, surveillance and other military applications according to the company's website.

Under the pretense of providing internet access to the developing world, Facebook and Google hope to provide access to their products. Along with this consumer access, they provide military and intelligence access to the American security state. Access is not provided to permanent infrastructure, health care, clean water and political and economic self-determination. The American security state, acting through this provided access, is better positioned to thwart attempts by people in the developing world to seize and demand access to these basic human rights.