Hundreds of thousands of ordinary apps, including popular ones such as 9gag, Kik, and a series of caller ID apps, are part of a global surveillance capability that starts with ads inside each app, and ends with the apps’ users being swept up into a powerful mass monitoring tool advertised to national security agencies that can track the physical location, hobbies, and family members of people to build billions of profiles, according to a 404 Media investigation.
404 Media’s investigation, based on now deleted marketing materials and videos, technical forensic analysis, and research from privacy activists, provides one of the clearest examinations yet of how advertisements in ordinary mobile apps can ultimately lead to surveillance by spy firms and their government clients through the real time bidding data supply chain. The pipeline involves smaller, obscure advertising firms and advertising industry giants like Google. In response to queries from 404 Media, Google and PubMatic, another ad firm, have already cut-off a company linked to the surveillance firm.
“The pervasive surveillance machine that has been developed for digital advertising now directly enables government mass surveillance. Many businesses, from app publishers to advertisers to big tech, are acting completely irresponsibly. This must end,” Wolfie Christl, the principal of Cracked Labs, an Austrian research institute and co-author of a paper published last year that researched the surveillance tool, told 404 Media.
The mass monitoring tool in question is called Patternz. In a video uploaded to YouTube in January 2023 that was removed once 404 Media started to make inquiries, Rafi Ton, the CEO of Patternz, says “we analyze behavior of over 600,000 applications.” One slide he brings up during the video says that “the mobile phone becomes the de-facto tracking bracelet,” and suggests tracking can be achieved through “virtually any app that has ads.” The video appears to be a demonstration Ton is giving to potential clients for the Patternz system. The context of the pitch is for Patternz to counter COVID-19, but Ton acknowledges that the platform was built as a “homeland security platform.” In other marketing materials online, Patternz pitches itself specifically to “national security agencies.”