How US Spies Secretly Track You Through Travel Companies

(This article was originally published on GreatGameIndia.com, a geopolitical and current affairs monitor)

According to Forbes magazine, the US government utilized a 233-year-old law to order two large global travel companies to track down a Russian national so he might be detained and extradited. The outlet filed a lawsuit in order to access the court records, with the help of privacy advocates who have condemned such orders as secretive and open to abuse.

The magazine also stated that Aleksey Burkov, the alleged hacker at the center of the affair, was deported to Russia in 2021 for reasons the US government has yet to explain.

According to Forbes, a November 2015 court order required Sabre and Travelport, both based in the United States, to submit “complete and contemporaneous real-time account activity” of Burkov’s travel for two years, as well as weekly updates to the US Secret Service. This order was “significantly longer” in duration than a prior one issued to Sabre, which instructed the company to track another alleged hacker for six months – and which Forbes uncovered in 2020. The court also prohibited the two firms from revealing the order without first obtaining authorization from the court.

Sabre and Travelport are two of the most well-known names in the international tourism industry. They dominate the global distribution system (GDS) market in the West, together with Amadeus of Spain, coordinating bookings between airlines, hotels, car rental companies, and cruise lines.

Travelport is a privately held company that was sold in 2018 for $4.4 billion. Sabre claims to handle more than $120 billion in travel spending each year. It has a market capitalization of $2.5 billion and is traded on NASDAQ.

The US government used the All Writs Act of 1789 to compel the two companies to monitor Burkov. During a study into the San Bernardino, California terrorist attack in 2015, the outdated statute attracted notice — and notoriety. The FBI attempted to force Apple to unlock an iPhone belonging to Rizwan Farook, an Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) sympathizer who massacred 14 people in a mass shooting alongside his wife. Apple turned down the offer. The phone was eventually unlocked by the government, who purportedly used Israeli software but found nothing of use. 

The US Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment or additional information from Forbes. According to court filings, neither Sabre nor Travelport objected to the orders.

Jennifer Granick, a surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said, “Too much about these types of warrants is hidden from the public.” She described the collecting of future travel information as “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 warned.

Travelport and Sabre didn’t have to keep an eye on Burkov for very long. In 2015, while on vacation in Israel, he was arrested on a US warrant. According to the Secret Service, he ran a website called Cardplanet, which sold $20 million worth of stolen credit cards.

“I’m an average man. I was dealing with cyber security and programming, I worked with databases. 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 said in October 2019. 

In order to avoid an 80-year sentence, he accepted a plea deal to serve nine years in prison. In June 2020, he was extradited to the United States and imprisoned near Washington, DC. The Department of Justice has “yet to provide a full explanation” for why he was released and returned to Russia in September 2021.

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