Dark Cloud: Inside The Pentagon’s Leaked Internet Surveillance Archive

Haythem Elmir

The UpGuard Cyber Risk Team can now disclose that three publicly downloadable cloud-based storage servers exposed a massive amount of data collected in apparent Department of Defense intelligence-gathering operations. The repositories appear to contain billions of public internet posts and news commentary scraped from the writings of many individuals from a broad array of countries, including the United States, by CENTCOM and PACOM, two Pentagon unified combatant commands charged with US military operations across the Middle East, Asia, and the South Pacific.

The data exposed in one of the three buckets is estimated to contain at least 1.8 billion posts of scraped internet content over the past 8 years, including content captured from news sites, comment sections, web forums, and social media sites like Facebook, featuring multiple languages and originating from countries around the world. Among those are many apparently benign public internet and social media posts by Americans, collected in an apparent Pentagon intelligence-gathering operation, raising serious questions of privacy and civil liberties.

While a cursory examination of the data reveals loose correlations of some of the scraped data to regional US security concerns, such as with posts concerning Iraqi and Pakistani politics, the apparently benign nature of the vast number of captured global posts, as well as the origination of many of them from within the US, raises serious concerns about the extent and legality of known Pentagon surveillance against US citizens. In addition, it remains unclear why and for what reasons the data was accumulated, presenting the overwhelming likelihood that the majority of posts captured originate from law-abiding civilians across the world.

With evidence that the software employed to create these data stores was built and operated by an apparently defunct private-sector government contractor named VendorX, this cloud leak is a striking illustration of just how damaging third-party vendor risk can be, capable of affecting even the highest echelons of the Pentagon. The poor CSTAR cyber risk scores of CENTCOM and PACOM – 542 and 409, respectively, out of a maximum of 950 – is a further indication that even the most sensitive intelligence organizations are not immune to sizable cyber risk. Finally, the collection of billions of internet posts in several unsecured data repositories raises further questions about online privacy, as well as regarding the right to freely express your beliefs online.

The Discovery

On September 6th, 2017, UpGuard Director of Cyber Risk Research Chris Vickery discovered three Amazon Web Services S3 cloud storage buckets configured to allow any AWS global authenticated user to browse and download the contents; AWS accounts of this type can be acquired with a free sign-up. The buckets’ AWS subdomain names – “centcom-backup,” “centcom-archive,” and “pacom-archive” – provide an immediate indication of the data repositories’ significance. CENTCOM refers to the US Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla. and responsible for US military operations from East Africa to Central Asia, including the Iraq and Afghan Wars. PACOM is the US Pacific Command, headquartered in Aiea, HI and covering East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia and Pacific Oceania.
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