Digital Deception: Is Uncle Sam a Hacker?

In April, AP broke the news of the latest bizarre twist in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Starting with a pirated database of 50,000 cell phone numbers of Cuban citizens, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) created ZunZuneo, essentially a fake version of Twitter. They used spoof servers to disguise the U.S. origins of the service and even created phony banner ads to make it look like a commercial venture.

Almost laughably, USAID described this as a “discreet form of humanitarian assistance.” Most observers, however, think that the boys in Washington had visions of creating an Arab Spring in Havana. And that’s not to mention the goal of building a database of demographic information about the 40,000 Cubans who subscribed.

Aside from the questionable strategic thinking behind ZunZuneo, it had a very practical flaw. Since all the communication was based on text messaging, the fees got pretty steep. So it was folded after 3 years, leaving behind tens of thousands of dollars in texting fees and no real discernable uptick in dissent in Cuba. All that remains is a Facebook page which you can see here.

In most of my posts about Digital Deception, the perpetrators have been marketers, businessmen looking to promote their business or trash their competitors or just self absorbed assholes trying the make themselves look more important or more influential than they really are. But what happens when these tools of online chicanery are put in the hands of government and their opponents? For one thing, digital deception is ideologically agnostic. It is used by dictatorships and democracies, by communists, socialists and capitalists.

Law enforcement agencies have used the tactic of creating false personas and befriending suspects. If that results in capturing criminals, the ethical considerations might arguably be of no consequence. But I think in the future we may start seeing some case law developing about online entrapment.

As early as 2004 China created what is known as the 50-cent Party (China’s Paid Trolls: Meet the 50-cent Party). This is a legion of online commentators who post positive information about the Chinese government and the Communist Party. Participants are trained and certified by the Minister of Culture. And they are paid 50 cents per comment.

While there has never been any official acknowledgement (no surprise there), Russia is believed to employ “web brigades.”  These guys assume false identities and spew forth pro-Russian propaganda by commenting on blogs and participating in online discussions.

Among the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden were some that provided information about the U.K.’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group. Not satisfied with just pushing propaganda, this group attacks targets using tactics that include changing online photos, posting material online and falsely attributing it to someone else and creating fake blog posts that appear to be written by a victim of the target whose reputation they are trying to destroy.

On a still more sinister level the Australian government has accused the Taliban of using phony Facebook accounts to gain military intelligence. They create personas of attractive women and befriend deployed soldiers then use Facebook’s geo-tracking to determine their whereabouts.

(Life most men I’ve received friend requests on Facebook with pictures of attractive young women who I have never heard of and who have no mutual friends. Chances are this isn’t the Taliban, but they probably aren’t attractive young women either.)

My previous Digital Deception post was about astroturfers. Lo and behold, the U.S. Air Force in 2011 posted a call for bids on for “persona management software.” Something you might also call astroturfing software. Among the specifications were that the software create 10 personas per user and randomly assign IP addresses. (You can see that document here.)

A California company Ntrepid won the contract for $2.8 million. This became part of “Operation Earnest Voice,” a effort to disseminate what, depending on your views, would be considered either information or propaganda. It’s kind of a Black Hat Voice of America.

Writing in the Guardian in March of 2011 , Jeff Jarvis commented that it is “sad to see the U.S. government taming the power of the net to stoop to the morals of a clumsy Nigerian spammer.”

The governments of the world are almost invariably not the source of technical innovation. But they are quick to adapt technology and use it for espionage, propaganda and to attack their enemies. This is a story that I am sure is still being written.

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24 Responses to Digital Deception: Is Uncle Sam a Hacker?

  1. Kate F Eaton says:

    I appreciate the thought and research you’ve done on this topic. Quite informative, I knew about the mess in Cuba but hadn’t connected all the other dots to see the trends.


  2. thetraveloguer says:

    Great post Ken! The Snowden revelations have cast light on the disturbing and underhanded methods used to invade privacy and manipulate people. You might be interested in They have been covering these stories for a while. They recently revealed that Gernamy helped the Bahrain government spy on their people, and that the US does the same for Saudi Arabia, and the Bahamas. It’s really sad.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      I did come across The Intercept in my research. It is an interesting story. A billionaire philanthropist funded it and the editor is a Glen Greenwald who wrote the stories about the Snowden leaks for the Guardian. He works and lives in a jungle in Brazil.


  3. Duke Stewart says:

    This is so creepy in many ways. The U.S. has decided to join them but I’m sure they’ve been at it for just as long as our perceived “enemies.” I know that both Koreas are in a constant hacking war and can’t wait to befriend some North Korean spies posing as a new friend. This is scary but also funny albeit, in a dark and twisted way. What a beautiful future we have ahead of us!


  4. Beth Niebuhr says:

    Digital deception doesn’t sound so bad at first. Then as it becomes more apparent how prevalent it is, and how really sneaky, it is appalling. I agree that there will be some case law developing about online entrapment. There’s a dull roar in the background of people demanding it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lenie says:

    We recently had an uproar here in Canada because the Chinese had hacked into the computers of the Canadian Research Council. I knew this kind of deceptive activity was going on but had no idea to what extent. Your information is important, something we all need to know, however, not sure what we can do about it.


  6. I understand everyone’s fear about governments and the internet. I do however, am surprised about our lack of concern about private companies using it. There is no outcry about companies stealing your private data, or companies tracking you. If our government does it, you can vote them out, but what can you do against companies?


  7. jacquiegum says:

    This is appalling on so many levels. Mostly because we are helpless to stop or control it in any way. While outwardly some might perceive this as mere propaganda, it’s so much more insidious than that. But even as the word rage come to mind, it’s quickly cancelled out by the word powerless.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This was and is so creepy on so many levels. On an other note, When you think about it, the the BIGGEST watchdog on our personal habits, behaviors and everyday goings on are credit card companies. Will we stop using our credit cards?… I think not. It isn’t a very far leap to what Snowden revealed. Regardless, it’s also foolish to think that other countries aren’t doing the same to us and themselves. So where does that leave us in all of this? Powerless…. but we plow on.


  9. Tim says:

    I love reading your posts ken and every time I feel a little like I am reading something out of a spy novel. I think back on all the old, and not so old, syfy thrillers and a lot of this is no longer far from the truth. It’s disturbing and enlightening but as you and the others have said, there is not much we can do except be vigilant.


  10. Unfortunately digital deception is part of life nowadays. We all have to be careful what we do online. If not, we could end up in deep trouble. There is not much point in complaining about it because it’s there to stay . Lamentable but there’s nothing we can do apart from being vigilant.


  11. Don Purdum says:

    Hi Ken,

    Very interesting piece. I think if we knew just 10% of what was really going on we would be shocked and maybe even appalled. Just look at what we do know that makes it out if you’re paying attention?


  12. Meredith says:

    Scary stuff! It’s a good reminder to watch your p’s and q’s online, which is just a good idea anyway. I agree with Tim, it reads like a spy novel. Maybe a new project idea for you? 🙂


  13. Christina says:

    Scary, but unfortunately, not surprising. The idea of “Big Brother” just keeps taking on more shocking forms.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Erica says:

    I’m sure digital deception will continue to be a growing problem. I spent some years working in sales for high end dating services. A really growing problem in the online dating world is fake profiles usually of men, geared towards women. They would create a profile that would appeal to an emotionally vulnerable divorced or widowed woman. When they made contact they would build their trust. Then they would create a fake scenario of a sick child needing an operation, or something like that to embezzle money out of these women. I talked to women who got taken for thousands upon thousands of dollars that way. You never know who is out there if you don’t know the person personally.


  15. George Orwell would likely be shocked at how far we’ve come since his forecast. It’s unfortunate when the technical disadvantage of the trusting masses is exploited. Kind of like leaving your car with the mechanic for an oil change, and after listening to the litany of unrelated ills when the call comes in, grudgingly handing over the credit card on a hope that the brakes really do need replaced. Thanks for the heads up, Ken. I’ll keep kicking the tires and deleting any friend requests from attractive, young props.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Ken Dowell says:

    I would expect a lot of less than honest info on dating sites, but that’s awful.


  17. Donna Janke says:

    This is a disturbing post, but what is most disturbing is that I suspect there is a lot more digital deception going on than we might think. I have connected with some great people online, but I wonder if the day will come when we are all too wary or suspicious for that to happen.


  18. Donna Janke says:

    It is disturbing how much digital deception there is. I have connected with some great people online. I wonder if the day will come when we will now longer connect because we are all too wary and suspicious because of these deceivers.


  19. jbutler1914 says:

    I would be surprised if Uncle Same wasn’t a hacker. The government tried to get info (spy) on people anyway possible. This is the newest and probably one of the easiest ways to get someones personal info. People put darn near everything out there these days.


  20. Pingback: Will the Democratization of Information Destroy the Democracy? | off the leash

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