A controlling shareholder in a European public company made a real estate deal that looked fishy to law authorities. All of their efforts to discover the truth - whether or not he knew the other party in the deal - were useless. The acquaintance of the parties was eventually revealed. A search on Facebook did not discover any connection between them, but another picture taken five years earlier by the seller's sister-in-law showed up on the Internet. Her post was what broke the case.
Another story: gang members in New York customarily put violent content online in real time, just before committing a crime. Since it is possible to check the source of clips put on Youtube, the police have an indication of when to arrive and the exact location. They managed to prevent crimes before the gang members committed them.
There is a great deal of open information on the Internet, especially the social networks. The problem is that it is dispersed, the context is unclear, and it has to be put in order and analyzed. The technology behind the solving of these two cases comes from Israeli startup Bler Systems. In simple language, Bler is a cyber intelligence company operating in the open-source intelligence (OSINT) field. The sources can be video, audio, photographs, or text. Actually, such intelligence has always existed. For example, countries have always analyzed the media in enemy countries. What has changed is that the quantities of digital information have proliferated, which has created fertile ground for analysis of new information.
From the Israel Securities Authority to the consultant committee
The market is projected to grow in the coming years because of the increase in data generated in the world, specifically in developed countries. According to Market Research Future, the OSINT market amounted to $2.9 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach $7 billion in 2023. CEO Uri Boros and CTO Efim Lerner founded Bler in 2014. The two entrepreneurs, who previously worked in companies like Verint Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: VRNT) and NICE Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: NICE; TASE: NICE), decided to develop this technology outside of those companies, which at a later stage also entered the field.
Bler is a small startup operating in a market that is not free from competition. It has companies such as Palantir Technologies, which specializes in data mining and data; Israeli company Verint, which operates in cybersecurity and intelligence, among other things; and NICE Systems, which operates in the financial fraud prevention sector. Bler has 30 employees, and has recruited former Israel Securities Authority intelligence and technology department manager Otniel Afek for its consultant committee. Boros and Lerner used their own equity and raised $600,000 from Avnon Group, controlled by Tomer Avnon.
"People understand now that you have to combine the old systems with a new one. For example, an eavesdropping system is worthless if it tells you only the two numbers who spoke on the phone. You need a system that will tell you a person's background. Many times, this is information that neither the country nor the mobile phone companies have, although they know in whose name the phone is registered. On the social networks, they'll know who really uses the phone," Boros says. "We saw that there was a drop-off in data because they are encrypted, while you can learn from the Internet who the person is, who his friends are, and so forth. That's how we got to profiling - building a profile about people. We have a security project for one of the ports in Israel through getting information about everyone who enters the area by sea or by land from the passengers, the crew of the ships, drivers, etc. and creating their profile," Boros explains. The company says that the use of this type of intelligence is likely to enter many industries: focused online advertising, providing credit to people, and even testing taxi drivers.
Bler uses publicly revealed information. A similar issue, data mining, is the basis of a lawsuit by US startup hiQ, which developed an algorithm for analyzing and predicting employees' behavior, against the LinkedIn social network. LinkedIn decided to block hiQ's access, claiming that users did not allow the social network to present the date to a third party. Nevertheless, since the information is public and accessible to all, the court ordered the block removed.
Also in the case of Bler, the users may have put the information on the social networks, but probably did not think that the information would be used for its purposes. In response to a question about privacy, the company said, "The information gathered is public knowledge, so there is no violation of privacy. The company does not plan to expand its information gathering beyond what is now taking place. As a technology provider, the company has no way of controlling what is done with the technological tools. The company merely provides an information gathering tool." Bler also emphasized that it has an ethical code.
Bler says that it helps mainly security and intelligence agencies, and that its activity is typical of the entire sector. "We have several new cooperative ventures with security agencies, and we're planning to establish a center in Manhattan," the company says. Its technology, however, is also useful for law enforcement agencies, and for concerns that must comply with regulatory requirements, such as banks. "Today, when you open an account at a bank for a commercial company, the bank has to create a profile of the person who opened the account, who he is, who the company is, and what it is going to do. We work with a bank in Singapore, and we help it get to know its customers better: not their financial situation, but whether they hold straw companies or are on FBI or Interpol blacklists. This process can take a bank two weeks, and we shorten it to one week," Lerner says. Bler says that it will not work with private detective agencies, which can exploit its technology for less legitimate uses.
The company shortens the process by a week, because it saves a lot of the information gathering that is done by human analysts. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that while the technology does not make the decisions, it has to be capable at some point of providing concrete recommendations. As of now, this is not the case. "It may possible to do this, but this means taking artificial intelligence from some other field. We specialize in search engines and databases," Lerner adds.
Boros explains that the system sold to a bank will be different from a system sold to Israel Police or the Israel Tax Authority.
Adapting the system to the customer can take anywhere from two weeks to several months. "We studied the field of ships in depth in order to understand who enters a port and who leaves. Sometimes, when you have too much information, it just makes a mess, and bringing too little information is a problem. Most concerns do not lack work, and don't want you to throw mountains of data at them; they want data with insights," Boros says, adding that the technology can also have other uses, for example in workplaces. "People doing hiring get CVs in which people write about themselves. You can take those CVs and compare them with what comes from the system in order to see whether they are true," he explains.
Lerner emphasizes an interesting point: there is no way to hide: "In any case, I can see that you exist. First of all, if you use a telephone that isn't so smart, it already says something about you. If you don't find anything about someone, he or she should probably be monitored more carefully. In the end, they'll make a change and open a Facebook page, if only to look for an apartment, and then you've got them."
How Bler gets information about people on the social networks
By telephone: A precise profile can be based on a telephone number. The system gets information from the social networks, apps, and the darknet, and constructs a profile of the person.
Fields of interest: A initial investigation is conducted even when there are no specific targets, for example on the basis of groups on social media or according to subject. For example, groups are monitored on Facebook in order to spot questionable discourse (such as incitement to murder).
Location: A profile is created for a specific location that makes it possible to obtain information about people in the area, for example, all of the people who published posts on the social networks in the same location.
Darknet: Monitoring commercial activity taking place on the darknet, where trading in illegal goods and services takes place.
Public opinion on the social networks: Public opinion on the social networks is analyzed according to specific subjects - a comparison between competing companies or candidates, analysis of brands, issues on the public agenda, etc.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 30, 2020
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