US uses travel giants as spying tools — Analysis
Forbes magazine reported Wednesday that the US government had ordered two large global travel agencies to follow a Russian citizen under a law that dates back to 233 years. Privacy advocates, who criticize warrants for being secretive and easily abused, assisted the outlet in obtaining court records.
Aleksey Burkov, alleged hacker, was also mentioned in the magazine. These circumstances, which the US government is still trying to explain, were sent to Russia by 2021.
The November 2015 court order directed the Sabre, a US-based company, and Travelport, based in the UK to supply information. “complete and contemporaneous real-time account activity” of Burkov’s travel for two years, and give weekly reports to the US Secret Service, Forbes reported. Forbes reported that this was “significantly longer” in duration than a previous order issued to Sabre, telling the company to track another alleged hacker for a period of six months – which Forbes also dug up in 2020. Both companies were also prohibited by the court from disclosing this order without permission.
Sabre and Travelport, two of the major players in international tourist information collection and storage are Travelport and Amadeus. Together with Amadeus from Spain, they are the dominant players in the West’s global distributor system (GDS) market. They coordinate bookings among airlines, hotels and car rental companies, as well as cruise lines.
Travelport, a privately held company was sold in 2018 for $4.4 Billion. Sabre claims that it handles over $120 million in travel expenditures each year. With a market capitalization of $2.5 Billion, it is listed on NASDAQ.
The All Writs Act of 1789 was invoked by the US government to get Burkov’s attention. The ancient law gained attention – and notoriety – in 2015, during the probe into the San Bernardino, California terrorist attack. Apple was forced to unlock his iPhone by the FBI. Rizwan Farook is a terrorist sympathizer of Islamic State (formerly ISIS). He and 14 others were killed in an attack on a school. Apple declined. Apple refused.
Forbes received no further information from the US Justice Department. The court filings don’t show that Sabre or Travelport opposed the orders.
“Too much about these types of warrants is hidden from the public,”Forbes quoted Jennifer Granick (a cybersecurity and surveillance counsel at American Civil Liberties Union) as her name. Her term for the gathering of information on future travel was “collection of information”. “particularly invasive and susceptible to abuse.”
“The police are capitalizing on private data collection to obtain revolutionary surveillance powers that are essentially unapproved and unsupervised by democratic processes,”She said.
Travelport and Sabre didn’t have to keep Burkov under surveillance for too long, it was revealed. The US warrant was issued for his arrest in Israel when he traveled to Israel with a girlfriend. He was accused by the Secret Service of operating a website named Cardplanet that sold stolen credit cards worth $20 million.
“I’m an average man. My work involved programming and cyber security. I did have acquaintances among people complicit in hacking, but I myself didn’t commit those crimes – the Americans simply decided to blame all this on me,” Burkov told RT in October 2019.
Burkov agreed to a nine-year term in prison as a plea bargain to get around an 80-year sentence. In June 2020, Burkov was extradited from Russia and taken to Washington DC. According to the DOJ, he has been “yet to provide a full explanation”He was sent home to Russia on September 20, 2021, and released.