Edward Snowden's old employer is developing tech for the government to track you through your Fitbit

By James Robinson , written on June 19, 2014

From The News Desk

Consider a world in which, thanks to your Fuel band, the US Center for Disease Control knows you're sick before you do. Or where the Department of Homeland security receives a heads-up on your flight plans from your Up band. Better still, imagine if the government -- the police, FBI or even the NSA -- can track you using your Fitbit.

Brave new world, right? And thanks to Edward Snowden's old employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, it might not be too far off.

I’m sitting in a hotel restaurant in San Francisco across from two top data scientists in Booz Allen’s Strategic Innovation Group. Vice President Josh Sullivan has spent almost two decades working with computer science, cyberspace and large scale distributed systems to “advance the national intelligence and military tradecraft." Senior Associate Ray Hensberger is a big data savant. His team has just built a statistical model for 400 pitchers in MLB that can predict with 97.7 percent accuracy what they will throw out next.

Sullivan and Hensberger are explaining how their team has been working with an unnamed Government agency on “bio-surveillance”. Remember when Google was able to track the outbreak of swine flu by looking at search terms? What Booz Allen is trying to do is like that, but more terrifying: pulling physical information from wearable devices to map population dynamics and predict the spread of disease. And that's just for starters.

This isn't any ordinary project from any ordinary company. Booz Allen Hamilton draws 99 percent of its revenue from the Federal government and is the self-described “leading provider of management and technology consulting services to the US government,” a client roster that includes the NSA. It was from Booz Allen's servers that Snowden was able to download many of the documents which he subsequently leaked to journalists at the Guardian.

I point out that the idea that a company with ties to the NSA is monitoring our heart rate info from our iWatches won’t be received well by most people.

“The benefits of a project like this far outweigh the downside. Far outweigh them,” Sullivan says.

Normally this is the part where a data-grabbing company would insist that they're only interested in aggregate data, and that there is no use to them in tracking you or me directly.

“I don’t agree with that,” Sullivan says. “I think high-fidelity information about you is of value.”

“It depends on what you’re trying to do,” Hensberger concurs.

Sullivan and Hensberger speak with an earnestness and honesty about big data and privacy you wish more politicians and startup CEOs could manage. Booz Allen’s Strategic Innovation Group has a staff of 1,500 people. It has a focus on next generation analytics and predictive intelligence. These two work on data projects with huge implications and impact. Sullivan tells me a story about working with a large pharmaceutical company that was losing $2 billion worth of vaccines to spoilage each year inside its bioreactors. The Strategic Innovation Group built a predictive model using 10 million data points that was able to find and prevent $1 billion of that waste.

Sullivan and Hensberger are psyched about the future of big data and predictive analytics. Sullivan says that he thinks this “digital nervous system” that has emerged in recent decades represents a societal inflection point, with implications as large as the invention of the steam engine. It is not quite there yet, but eventually he thinks people will figure out how to use this data to create high-fidelity real world models, running complex simulations and accurately predicting out a series of outcomes.

They don't seem at all concerned that the current Google/NSA/Surveillance Valley fracas might restrict the flow of data available to them.

“I don’t think people are going to clamp down on their data now. We’re half way down the rabbit hole,” Sullivan says.

Rather, he argues, the power dynamic of how data is used and traded needs to flipped. Data should be given over, not taken. “It is the most immature area,” he says. Phone companies shouldn’t bury their plans to sell your information in line eight of page 12 of a prohibitively long contract. That just gives everything a suspicious tint. He thinks there needs to be forward transparency, an opt-in, rather than opt-out culture.

Sullivan sees a future where we can leverage and sell our own information to companies. “Imagine if you could upload and sell your own power bill. You could sell your data. Essentially monetize your information, leasing it to me for analytics,” he says.

“You would know and control the information, set limits and values and we would say here’s what we’re doing and why.”

But of course, there's no guarantee that everyone -- like, say, Booz Allen's friends at the NSA -- will play by the "data economy" rules.

“There are people who do all kinds of shit, good or bad,” Hensberger acknowledges. “There’s good car salespeople, there’s bad car salespeople.”

And then there's the name: “bio-surveillance." Isn't that the creepiest possible name for a project that, on the face of it, is supposed to help people, not horrify them?

“That’s why we like to call it digital disease detection,” Sullivan says.

He adds with a smile: “Marketing.”