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 FebBizOps.gov 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.