Patrick Ryan, a congressional candidate from New York, is leaning on his experience as a small business entrepreneur to establish his readiness for office, but he has curiously failed to mention the business he used to work in: domestic surveillance.
Seven years ago, Ryan, then working at a firm called Berico Technologies, compiled a plan to create a real-time surveillance operation of left-wing groups and labor unions, hoping business lobbyists would pay top dollar to monitor and disrupt the actions of activist groups across the country. At one point, the proposal included the idea to spy on the families of high-profile Democratic activists and plant fake documents with labor unions in a bid to discredit them.
The pitch, a joint venture with a now-defunct company called HBGary Federal and the Peter Thiel-backed company Palantir Technologies, however, crumbled in 2011 after it was exposed in a series of news reports.
Years later, Ryan pivoted to a startup called Dataminr, a data analytics company that provided social media monitoring solutions for law enforcement clients. Dataminr, which received financial support from the CIA’s venture capital arm, produced real-time updates about activists for law enforcement. For example, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and reported by The Intercept for the first time, Dataminr helped track social media posts relating to Black Lives Matter.
Ryan is one of several Democrats hoping to challenge freshman Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., for a seat that is expected to be among the most competitive in the country. The Hudson Valley district contains both staunchly conservative and liberal pockets. Donald Trump won the district by a seven-point margin in 2016, but even when Barack Obama took the district by six points in 2012, Democrats failed to win the congressional seat. Republicans have held the 19th District since it was formed eight years ago. This year, as Democrats anticipate a wave of victories in response to Trump and the GOP’s wildly unpopular agenda, they hope that the 19th District, will finally turn blue.
The candidate has the backing of some of the more conservative elements of the Democratic Party. His campaign has won financial support from The New Democrat Coalition PAC, a group that supports business-friendly Democrats for Congress. The PAC is hoping to dramatically expand the number of moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats on Capitol Hill next year and, along with the Blue Dog PAC, is working aggressively to counter more populist and progressive candidates running in Democratic primaries for the midterm elections. Ryan, who served as an Army intelligence officer in Iraq, also won support from Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who has helped raise cash and build political support for a group of veterans and mostly moderate Democrats running for office this year.
In a statement to The Intercept, Ryan’s campaign said he expressed “concerns with the nature of the work” at Berico Technologies:
Pat grew up in a union household. He knows the value of the labor movement, and has always been a strong supporter. In his first job after serving in the U.S. Army, Pat worked at a small software firm and was assigned to develop a proposal, but had concerns about the nature of the work, especially in relation to the protection of American citizens’ privacy and civil liberties. The project did not move past the proposal stage.
Later in his career, Pat worked at Dataminr, a firm with a strong commitment to privacy and civil liberties. His work at the firm saved lives by providing real-time information to first responders and others in harms way. This is a critical area for national security as we work to find the right way to leverage digital intelligence and protect innocent Americans.
The candidate’s history of spying on progressive groups has been conspicuously absent from the personal history he has presented to voters.
The biography section of Ryan’s campaign website references only another technology business he helped found, called Second Front Systems. That company deploys “cutting-edge data analytics software to our troops on the front lines,” according to the site. Ryan continues to own a 10 percent stake in the firm, valued between $15,000 and $50,000, and has discussed his work with the startup as part of his experience of building a business and providing jobs.
But that business venture appears not to have been as successful as Ryan’s domestic surveillance work — at least not from a moneymaking perspective. His candidate ethics disclosure, which covers money made in 2016 and 2017, does not list any income from Second Front Systems — of which he is still a director — but it reveals that in 2016, Ryan collected $325,510 as a vice president of Dataminr.
In an hourlong presentation to local Democratic voters with Ulster Activists and Move Forward New York, Ryan stressed his experience as a small business entrepreneur. At one moment during the January 7 event, Ryan referenced his job at Dataminr, but did not mention the company’s name or the type of work it engaged in. In a question about whether taking a job in Congress would constitute a pay cut, Ryan said yes and that he had taken work at another “another tech company” in which he “leads the government team.” In terms of his business career, Ryan talked at length about his efforts to employ former veterans.
In July 2015, Ryan joined Dataminr, a startup that has worked closely with clients to make sense out of vast amounts of social media data. The company, as The Intercept first reported in 2016, was funded through an investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA. The company, formed in consultation with Twitter, maintains access to Twitter’s proprietary “firehose” of user data, giving it an edge in social media data analysis.
The firm amassed law enforcement clients, including the FBI and Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center used by the government to alert multiple law enforcement departments in the Los Angeles region of potential threats. Documents, uncovered by the ACLU of California through a public records investigation of social media monitoring software, show that Dataminr monitored tweets mentioning Black Lives Matter on behalf of the JRIC. The emails show that Dataminr’s alerts vacuumed up tweets from now-Intercept columnist Shaun King, among other activists, in reports sent to law enforcement.
In another email obtained by the ACLU of California, Dataminr pitched the Los Angeles Police Department to use its tool to track protests, among other events of interest to law enforcement. Dataminr’s social media tracking tools are “highly valued by our clients at FBI CTD, NYPD, DoD and all ‘big five’ intel agencies,” the pitch continued.
In 2016, following a series of news reports on Dataminr’s relationship with law enforcement, Twitter announced Dataminr would no longer service fusion centers, and would restrict the use of its backend Twitter data for its law enforcement and intelligence agency clients.
Four years before he joined Dataminr, Ryan’s work with Berico Technologies was revealed in a hack of its partner firm, HBGary Federal. How his efforts to monitor activists on behalf of business interests were disclosed in an unusual story of spy versus spy.
In 2011, HBGary Federal boasted to the Financial Times that it was working on a plan to undermine WikiLeaks, which at the time was threatening to expose documents from Bank of America. In retaliation, a splinter group from the hacktivist collective LulzSec infiltrated network administrator from HBGary Federal, stealing thousands of emails from the firm and posting them onto the web.
The emails revealed that HBGary Federal had not only pitched a plan to Bank of America to track and discredit supporters of WikiLeaks, including The Intercept’s co-founder Glenn Greenwald, but had developed a larger business proposal to sell activist surveillance to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest pro-business lobbying organization in Washington, D.C.
The chamber had dealt with a wave of negative publicity. In 2010, it was exposed for using its 501(c)(6) tax entity, funded in part by foreign corporate contributions, to air campaign advertisements against Democratic lawmakers, an unprecedented spending spree that helped sweep in the Republican House majority. The revelation sparked calls for investigations and activist demonstrations on the steps of the chamber’s H Street headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The chamber, sensing a conspiracy by left-wing opponents, solicited a plan to monitor labor unions, activists, and reporters through its longtime law firm, the Virginia-based Hunton & Williams.
The stolen emails revealed that lawyers from Hunton & Williams, acting on behalf of the chamber, began working closely with Berico Technologies, Palantir, and HBGary Federal to devise a proposal to monitor and undermine critics of the Chamber, including MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union, the labor coalition Change to Win, and the Center for American Progress, the sponsor of the news outlet that exposed the chamber’s foreign funding. The three firms called their proposal “Team Themis.”
The emails show Ryan at every step of the process to pitch the chamber. He was on the initial email thread on October 19, 2010, discussing the idea. Ryan, responding to a unique opportunity to sell “a complete intelligence solution” using “social media exploitation,” said it “sounded like a great opportunity.”
Later that month, after a meeting with the chamber’s attorney, Ryan announced to his business partners that a “client of theirs is targeted by another entity, specifically a labor union, that is trying to extract some kind of concession or favorable outcome.”
The proposal initially included steps to track the online activities of chamber critics using Palantir’s powerful data analytics tools. The proposal also included a plan to counter the most vocal critics by planting a “false document” and creating “fake insider personnas [sic]” that could be used to “generate communications” with Change to Win.
Other ideas included gathering information on leading Democratic activists, labor union officials, and other chamber critics by scraping their social media accounts and the accounts of their families. HBGary Federal official Aaron Barr, using his company’s knowledge of computer exploits, floated the possibility of even using malware to hack into target computers.
The Team Themis proposal, pitched to the chamber for $2 million, moved along with support from the three firms involved. On January 9, 2011, Ryan emailed his colleagues to inform them that he had scheduled a call with Hunton & Williams to “discuss the way ahead for the Chamber effort.” That contract, however, never materialized.
On February 3, 2011, Ryan continued to email the team on the ongoing negotiations, claiming that he had just met with Hunton & Williams attorney Bob Quackenboss, who “apologized for the confusion/misunderstanding and said he thinks there is a high likelihood of selling the Chamber on this.” The team prepared to potentially revise the asking price and continue with another demonstration of the proposal, using data sent to Team Themis by Hunton & Williams and the chamber.
But the chamber never signed off on the ultimate contract. The next day, on February 4, hackers from LulzSec infiltrated HBGary Federal’s network, stealing and publishing the emails that revealed the Team Themis proposal.
Palantir and Berico executives disavowed the proposal, as did a spokesperson for the chamber. HBGary Federal shut its doors, and its parent company was sold to ManTech International, a major defense contractor.
Soon after the scandal, Ryan left Berico to co-found a company called Praescient Analytics and then, in 2014, Second Front Systems, where he worked until he launched his congressional campaign in 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Though Ryan has distanced himself from the Team Themis controversy, his Team Themis associates have coalesced around his campaign for office.
Palantir executives and employees are among Ryan’s largest campaign donors, having collectively donated $33,400. Palantir’s founder Alex Karp, who signed off on the Team Themis contract, and Palantir executive Shyam Sankar, who was carbon-copied on emails discussing the proposal, both gave $5,400, the legal maximum. Guy Filippelli, the co-founder of Berico, who was also involved in the Team Themis negotiations, gave $1,000.