The crowdsourcing gig app Premise is being used by the U.S. military to gather intelligence by paying users to take photos and complete tasks, according to a new report.
Premise has received at least $5 million since 2017 on military projects for the U.S. Army and Air Force, according to federal spending records reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The app pays users small fees, typically 5 to 10 cents, to carry out tasks, such as taking a photo of an ATM, completing a survey, or filling out observational reports such as recording the price of different consumer goods.
Premise says that about half of its clients are private companies seeking information to better understand the market and their competitors — but the Journal reveals that its users may also be unwittingly contributing to government intelligence gathering.
Premise Data Corp, based in San Francisco, referred an inquiry from DailyMail.com to a public statement, which said in part: ‘The implication that Premise is a tool of surveillance is completely inaccurate and unfounded.’
Premise pays users a small fee to carry out tasks, such as take a photo of an ATM or fill out a survey. A new report reveals some of the data is purchased by military intelligence
Leaked documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal show that Premise proposed using its network to gather intel for the US military in Afghanistan
Premise in the statement objected to the use of the word ‘unwitting’, saying: ‘We actually tell our Contributors upfront that we’re going to pay them for this data, we own it, and we’re going to market it – just like many other data collection and market research firms.’
The company also denied that it put any of its users at risk, saying that it designed tasks with safety and privacy as a priority.
Marketing materials from last year said Premise has 600,000 contributors operating in 43 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.
In a 2019 proposal for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which was leaked to the Journal, Premise proposed three potential uses that could be carried out in a way that is ‘responsive to commander’s information requirements’
The company said it could gauge the effectiveness of U.S. information operations, scout and map out key social structures such as mosques, banks and internet cafes, and covertly monitor cell-tower and Wi-Fi signals in a 100-square-kilometer area.
The presentation said that the company could design tasks to ‘safeguard true intent,’ hiding the intelligence gathering nature of the operation from contributors.
Another Premise document explains that ‘proxy activities’ such as counting bus stops, electricity lines or ATMs could be used to get contributors to move around as the app gathers background data on wireless networks or other cellphones.
A pitch to military leaders described Premise as a ‘system for persistent ground ISR’, an abbreviation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
Premise has 600,000 contributors operating in 43 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, according to a 2019 proposal to the US military
Premise says that it works with publicly available data, comparing the practice to how Google and Apple map Wi-Fi networks using phone operating systems.
‘Data gained from our contributors helped inform government policy makers on how to best deal with vaccine hesitancy, susceptibility to foreign interference and misinformation in elections, as well as the location and nature of gang activity in Honduras,’ Premise Chief Executive Officer Maury Blackman told the Journal.
‘If some of our data is used by government departments to shape policy and to protect our citizens, we are proud of that,’ he said.
Another document that Premise submitted to the British government last year said that the app can capture more than 100 types of metadata from users’ phones, including location, battery level and other installed apps.
It was not clear whether any United Kingdom government agency has contracted with Premise, and the company declined to reveal its client list.
US Army patrol in Afghanistan with NATO and Afghan commando forces in 2018
However, federal spending records reviewed by the Journal show that a number of U.S. defense contractors and military branches have worked with the company.
The Air Force paid the company $1.4 million in 2019 to do ‘persistent ground ISR’, an abbreviation of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
At least five other defense contractors working on intelligence or defense contracts have purchased data from Premise, the records show.
Premise originally launched in 2013 as a tool to track food prices in the developing world and help NGOs understand the needs of local populations.
But insiders tell the Journal that the company struggled under that business model, and pivoted toward military and intelligence contracts after bringing Blackman on as CEO in 2018.
Premise says that none of the three million people who have used the app in the past five years have been harmed while completing more than 100 million tasks or surveys.
Full statement of Premise in response to WSJ report
We are flattered that the Wall Street Journal decided to write about our work. However, we wanted to clear up a couple of misconceptions that the reporter made about who we are and what we do.
There are three points in the article that require clarification. Primarily, the repeated use of the word “unwitting” when referring to our Contributors in Tau’s article. Second, that our Contributors are deliberately being put at risk in some unstable regions in the world. Finally, that Premise is a tool of surveillance.
“Unwitting” implies that our Contributors are unaware that they are being paid for data that is marketed to third parties including governments. There are many apps and services that share user information with third parties without their users knowing. We actually tell our Contributors upfront that we’re going to pay them for this data, we own it, and we’re going to market it – just like many other data collection and market research firms. Finally, it is very uncommon for market research companies to reveal the end customer. This is done to maintain objectivity and to eliminate any bias. Premise follows this best practice.
These tasks are designed with our Contributors’ safety and privacy top of mind and they generally fall in one of two buckets:
- Survey-based, which asks Contributors to tell us their opinions about a specific topic of interest in their community.
- Location-based, which asks Contributors to go to a specific public location and tell us, for instance, how much a cup of coffee costs or identify the names and locations of health care facilities.
Mr. Tau’s article implies that we are putting Contributors in precarious situations by citing an example of a mosque in Afghanistan that Contributors did not reserve because it was potentially dangerous. We advise our Contributors to only do work they are comfortable completing.
We saw this first hand while working with the United Nations Habitat to assess damaged buildings in Yemen. When the task wasn’t being completed, Premise asked Contributors why they were not interested in doing the work. When they reported safety issues in the area, we halted the task immediately. Safety will always take priority over data collection.
The implication that Premise is a tool of surveillance is completely inaccurate and unfounded. Premise Contributors do not enter private spaces and never collect information on an individual, nor do they violate the privacy of any individual or business. Premise is used to collect publicly available information and is never used to surveil a person or location.
In summary, we would like to thank the Wall Street Journal for highlighting our company and its groundbreaking technology that’s transforming the way organizations capture data and conduct market research. And, as quoted in the story, should our data be used to shape better, more informed policies, improve communities, or protect citizens, we are very proud to play that role.