Little West 12th Street is a quaint and narrow cobblestone path in the old Meatpacking District. Toward the end of the road is building no. 15, made mostly of glass panes and steel bars, empty on a weekday afternoon sometime in late February. The structure is home to the New York offices of Palantir, a small computer security firm based in Palo Alto, California, which was involved since last December until a few weeks ago in a plot with a larger fish named HBGary, an Alexandria-based firm working in the same field.
Their stated purpose was hunting hackers. Yet their ulterior motives came to light after Aaron Barr, the just-resigned CEO of HBGary, began to investigate WikiLeaks supporters like Salon.com reporter Glenn Greenwald and a blogger/activist named Brad Friedman. In doing so, Barr opened himself up to a barrage by the hacktivist group called Anonymous, which promptly posted his home address, social security number and email account for the world to see. Before navigating HBGary, Barr had been doing work for leading military contractor Northrop Grumman as a “cybersecurity” specialist, according to an email dated June 29, 2010.
That email attached an interview by one Camille Tuutti for a webzine named thenewnewinternet.com, in which Tuutti asked Barr, “What is your advice for up-and-coming cyber professionals?” Barr replied, “Roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty.”
This episode throws into sharp relief how powerful interests, such as Bank of America (BofA), the largest bank in the United States and a powerful business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are reacting to the era of transparency we all now live in, and how small and secretive computer security firms collaborated with those interests in order to sabotage, embarrass or discredit political enemies, specifically Glenn Greenwald and his associate Brad Friedman.
Barr, the head of HBGary, has recently stepped down amid a blizzard of criticism for the affair.
No one was there to answer the buzzer at Palantir that bright and brisk afternoon, and the owner of the property was unavailable. Palantir, named after the crystal ball in the “Lord of the Rings” saga, had already fired a key employee named Matthew Steckman on Feb. 15 for his role in a venture to discredit political targets of HBGary’s clients. New York Times reporters Eric Lipton and Charlie Savage had originally broken the story three days earlier. In the wake of this, Palantir publicly distanced themselves and severed all connections to HBGary. Lipton and Savage also had quoted denials from BofA and the Chamber that they themselves had done any work with the firm.
Steckman could not be reached for comment by this reporter, since his number had changed from the one shown repeatedly in a slew of hacked email accounts of top HBGary executives by Anonymous. “The number you have dialed has been changed, disconnected, or is no longer in service,” said the message. Another employee linked to the affair named James Wootton was also unavailable. Calls made to HBGary and another involved security firm named Berico Technologies were not returned.
Friedman, the activist whose work criticizing the Chamber got him and his family caught in the crosshairs, thinks the entire episode is emblematic of a larger problem. “Obviously, this highlights the insidious nexus of big government power and big corporate power,” he said, “being turned against the citizens of this country.” Friedman added that these interests “had no concern at all about the rule of law,” and pointed to law firm Hunton & Williams as the “mastermind” of the plot. Hunton could not be reached for comment.
“They will not talk,” Friedman said. He also identified the responses given by the firms directly implicated — HGBary, Berico Technologies and Palantir — as “complete and utter bullshit. They attempted to throw each other under the bus, deflect blame to the other guy,” he added. Friedman also referenced a lawsuit that his group, VelvetRevolution.us, has filed against the Chamber.
The hacked emails show that in early February as Barr drafted his public response to the cyberattacks by Anonymous, in retaliation for his company’s work in targeting WikiLeaks supporters, company founder Greg Hoglund got irritated about the measured language Barr was using in order to sound diplomatic. “Jesus man,” Hoglund wrote, “these people are not your friends, they are three steps away from being terrorists. Just blow the balls off of it.” When Barr replied that he would bring all the material he had on them to the FBI, Hoglund wrote back: “you are such a bad ass, i hate to see the mamby pamby.”
Lisa Gordon, an official at Palantir, wrote in an email dated Feb. 16 concerning an event at the High Line co-sponsored by JP Morgan Chase, “We apologize but we can’t open the event to any press — it is at the request of our customers.” Another attempt to reach her in order to see who at Palantir would speak was also made. “I’ll give you a call,” Gordon said, but as of press time there has been no further response.
“Silly gov,” wrote senior executive Mark Trynor to Chief Operating Officer Ted Vera and Barr in an email dated Jan. 27, 2011, in reference to the spread of groups like Anonymous. “When will they learn you can’t stop shit on the internet.”