Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media
Military's 'sock puppet' software creates fake online identities to spread pro-American propaganda
Jeff Jarvis: Washington shows the morals of a clumsy spammer
- Gen David Petraeus has previously said US online psychological operations are aimed at 'countering extremist ideology and propaganda'. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP
The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.
A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.
The project has been likened by web experts to China's attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.
The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as "sock puppets" – could also encourage other governments, private companies and non-government organisations to do the same.
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".
Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: "The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US."
He said none of the interventions would be in English, as it would be unlawful to "address US audiences" with such technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was always clearly attributed. The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.
Centcom said it was not targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any other language, and specifically said it was not targeting Facebook or Twitter.
Once developed, the software could allow US service personnel, working around the clock in one location, to respond to emerging online conversations with any number of co-ordinated messages, blogposts, chatroom posts and other interventions. Details of the contract suggest this location would be MacDill air force base near Tampa, Florida, home of US Special Operations Command.
Centcom's contract requires for each controller the provision of one "virtual private server" located in the United States and others appearing to be outside the US to give the impression the fake personas are real people located in different parts of the world.
It also calls for "traffic mixing", blending the persona controllers' internet usage with the usage of people outside Centcom in a manner that must offer "excellent cover and powerful deniability".
The multiple persona contract is thought to have been awarded as part of a programme called Operation Earnest Voice (OEV), which was first developed in Iraq as a psychological warfare weapon against the online presence of al-Qaida supporters and others ranged against coalition forces. Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded into a $200m programme and is thought to have been used against jihadists across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
OEV is seen by senior US commanders as a vital counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation programme. In evidence to the US Senate's armed services committee last year, General David Petraeus, then commander of Centcom, described the operation as an effort to "counter extremist ideology and propaganda and to ensure that credible voices in the region are heard". He said the US military's objective was to be "first with the truth".
This month Petraeus's successor, General James Mattis, told the same committee that OEV "supports all activities associated with degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities".
Centcom confirmed that the $2.76m contract was awarded to Ntrepid, a newly formed corporation registered in Los Angeles. It would not disclose whether the multiple persona project is already in operation or discuss any related contracts.
Nobody was available for comment at Ntrepid.
In his evidence to the Senate committee, Gen Mattis said: "OEV seeks to disrupt recruitment and training of suicide bombers; deny safe havens for our adversaries; and counter extremist ideology and propaganda." He added that Centcom was working with "our coalition partners" to develop new techniques and tactics the US could use "to counter the adversary in the cyber domain".
According to a report by the inspector general of the US defence department in Iraq, OEV was managed by the multinational forces rather than Centcom.
Asked whether any UK military personnel had been involved in OEV, Britain's Ministry of Defence said it could find "no evidence". The MoD refused to say whether it had been involved in the development of persona management programmes, saying: "We don't comment on cyber capability."
OEV was discussed last year at a gathering of electronic warfare specialists in Washington DC, where a senior Centcom officer told delegates that its purpose was to "communicate critical messages and to counter the propaganda of our adversaries".
Persona management by the US military would face legal challenges if it were turned against citizens of the US, where a number of people engaged in sock puppetry have faced prosecution.
Last year a New York lawyer who impersonated a scholar was sentenced to jail after being convicted of "criminal impersonation" and identity theft.
It is unclear whether a persona management programme would contravene UK law. Legal experts say it could fall foul of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, which states that "a person is guilty of forgery if he makes a false instrument, with the intention that he or another shall use it to induce somebody to accept it as genuine, and by reason of so accepting it to do or not to do some act to his own or any other person's prejudice". However, this would apply only if a website or social network could be shown to have suffered "prejudice" as a result.
• This article was amended on 18 March 2011 to remove references to Facebook and Twitter, introduced during the editing process, and to add a comment from Centcom, received after publication, that it is not targeting those sites.
Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media | Technology | The Guardian
Is US inching towards Pak nuclear assets?
The dramatic attack in Abbottabad during wee hours of 2nd May in which world's most wanted man Osama bin Laden was killed by the US Navy SEALS in a dare devil James Bond like precision operation, has totally shaken and demoralized the people of Pakistan in many respects. They are in a state of shock and awe. The powerful U.S. ambush has also provided yet another opportunity to those who exploit every possible occasion to whip up vicious propaganda against Pakistan military and world-recognized wonderful jewel of the security apparatus of Pakistan i.e. ISI. In any case, the enigmatic episode has, understandably opened a floodgate of theories and conspiracies as to how it happened.
Taking full advantage of the opportunity, U.S. media, a major part of which is in cahoots with the US Administration and Intelligence Agencies, has been carrying an avalanche of planted stories, as part of their never-ending psychological warfare to break the will of Pakistan.
The venomous attitude of the US towards Pak Army and ISI is understood as it has all along been trying to undermine its strength and every one of us knows it fully well at whose behest the notification to put the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry was issued. Washington is fully exploiting the Abbottabad operation to weaken and malign the General Pasha-led ISI and according to my information it has pinpointed names of one Major General and two Brigadiers, who, as per US claims, are to be blamed for presence of OBL in Pakistan.
The episode has, however, exposed that the crisis management of the Government of Pakistan is shockingly poor. We witnessed in the post-Abbottabad scenario that Islamabad miserably failed to respond to the delicate situation. The Government was mum. I am sorry to say this led to a lot of unbelievable theories. One may refer to on-the-record statement of the Interior Minister Rehman Malik that he came to know of the raid within 15 minutes which implies that, as a security in-charge, he must have passed on the information immediately to the President who is Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Then why the shocking silence of the Presidency? In such a situation, I as a person who strongly believes in, and advocates forcefully, continuation of the incumbent democratic Government for its mandated tenure i.e. 5 years, would have appreciated if the President had demonstrated leadership qualities and taken the nation into confidence as President Obama did sitting in Washington. President Obama just not proudly announced the killing of Osama bin Laden but later he went to Ground Zero in New York to pay tribute to those who became victims to the most condemned twin-tower attack of 9/11. This is what is called leadership.
As for Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, the Chief Executive of the country, is concerned, he incidentally had earlier scheduled meetings with French President Sarkozy and other French leadership and since an earlier visit of his to France was cancelled, it was therefore, decided on the recommendations of the Foreign Office that he should go ahead with the planned visit. Pakistan rightly attaches great importance to its cordial relations with France and other EU countries. But I, as a person who accompanied the Prime Minister during the three-day visit to France, can tell my readers that I found him extremely perturbed over the US attack on the sovereignty of Pakistan. During my one-to-one interactions with him in Paris as well as in the VVIP flight, I vividly noticed that the Prime Minister's mind was all the time in Islamabad. He was visibly worried. He wished he should have been in Islamabad. Again it was a coincidence that when the Prime Minister was returning home, there was a serious malfunctioning of the aircraft due to failure of its auto system forcing the pilots to go back to Paris. The Prime Minister and his entourage had a miraculous escape but it further delayed return of the Prime Minister back home to deal with the delicate situation.
Anyhow, it is high time that the political leadership, at least now, start evolving a well thought out, foolproof mechanism and various possible options to deal with security-related Abbottabad-like emergency situations. Such emergencies cannot be ruled out in the future as the Western media has already started talking about the possibility of operations against the so-called safe havens of Mullah Umar and Aiyman al Zawahry.
I would also caution that Pakistani authorities should be prepared in all respects to face more sinister allegations of all sorts against Pakistan as the US Navy SEALS have taken many electronic gadgets, CDs and computers from the Osama compound in Abbottabad with them. Americans claim they seized more than two terabytes of digital information describing it as a 'treasure trove' for intelligence analysts and it is understood that they might churn out what they wish out of this treasure as part of their grand plans and designs especially vis-à-vis Pakistan. It means WikiLeaks Part 2.
General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) was fully justified in his expression of deep-felt anguish over the insufficient response to the attack which led to public dismay. Pointing out on 9th May during his inspiring addresses to his Officers at Rawalpindi, Kharian and Sialkot garrisons the soft-spoken General highlighted as to how the Abbottabad incident has been in sharp public focus and how incomplete information and lack of technical details have resulted in speculations and misreporting. He also had a very valid point in complaining that public dismay and despondency has been aggravated due to insufficient formal response.
The civilian leadership should have taken the lead but it is believed that even the press conference by the Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir was Rawalpindi-inspired but that too was basically directed towards India as Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was quick to refer to Mumbai attacks and India's Army and Air Force Chiefs boasted that their forces have the capability and competence to carry out US-style commando operation “outside the county” to target terrorists. India has a long list of 'most-wanted' on Pakistani soil for what it calls terror acts, including the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
For the last over three years the Army, in line with General Kayani's most pragmatic and professional military philosophy, is rightly following the wisdom and priorities of the civilian leadership and, therefore, it was expecting the civilian leadership to respond to the unprecedented challenge a challenge which has been described by some, as the biggest challenge after 1971. The Army, in the prevailing environment and keeping in view world's ground realities of 2011, was not expected to take any counter-action on its own on the night of May 2. The civil society's enthusiastic demonstration in Islamabad and in many parts of the country, particularly in Sindh, on Thursday last to express solidarity with the Army was a loud approval of the Army's “look Islamabad” stance. The people of the twin cities expressed full backing to General Kayani and General Pasha, the valiant and vibrant symbols of courage and determination. The participants carried the Generals' portraits and showered praises on them which reflected people's love for the defenders of the motherland.
Here, I would like to briefly mention that many countries showed solidarity with Pakistan at this most critical time and, as witnessed in the past, it was our time-tested and all-weather friend China that took the lead in backing Pakistan. It was unusual that three times in a week, Chinese statements came in support of Pakistan which were not only an expression of solidarity during critical juncture but also almost bordered warning against any action against Pakistan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said “We uphold that countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected at all times” and reaffirmed Chinese support for efforts by its ally Pakistan to combat terrorism. “We support Pakistan's position and understand and support Pakistan formulating and implementing a counter-terrorism strategy based on its national conditions.” China's English newspaper Global Times, in an article, went a step further in pointing out that the Pakistani Government has taken risks beyond the imagination of the West in recent years. Pakistan has suffered huge losses from the war. It went on to say that US media criticism indicates that it does not see Pakistan as a real ally that deserves respect, but only a performer of the US interest.
In conclusion, I would refer to the widespread and growing concern of the people of Pakistan about US designs vis-à-vis Pakistan's nuclear programme and assets. In fact, these growing apprehensions of the people have prompted me to pen down this column. People's concern about our hard-earned nuclear assets has gained further credence due to recent statements by US Congressional leaders and some articles in the Western media suggesting that Pakistan's nuclear programme would come under tremendous pressure in the days to come. It is no secret that many Raymond Davis like dubious characters are present in large numbers and their movements and activities are extremely mysterious and worrisome. Who knows these Raymonds might be having safe houses somewhere near our nuclear assets as the CIA maintained safe houses for its agents and its Pakistani informers in Abbottabad. These apprehensions are not unfounded as according to an authentic report, a day before Osama was killed in Abbottabad, four Western diplomats/officials, including an American and a British, were caught hiking near a nuclear installation. Reports also suggest that during earthquake and flood rescue and relief operations, Americans were more interested in gathering information about Pakistan's strategic assets than carrying out humanitarian missions. In an interview to Fox News, Donald Trump, believed to be a top Republican contender for the next presidential elections, asserted “Pakistan is a real problem because they have nuclear weapons and I would say something that I haven't heard. I would say we don't give them any money unless they get rid of their nuclear weapons”. It is also pertinent to mention that the Congressional Research Service, the advisory arm of the US Congress, has issued numerous reports on Pakistan's nuclear programme highlighting the need to do something about them.
My dear countrymen! It is understood that they are piecing together information regarding the whereabouts of our lethal nuclear assets and the sites of storage of various vital and critical parts of these assets. The agenda of the US is quite clear that at some stage Pakistan will have to be de-nuclearized. But I have all the reasons to believe and I have full faith that this is nothing more than a sweet dream of the US which would not come true in any case as our assets have multi-tier strict security cordons and are in very safe hands. However, in such an eventuality, not only the Armed Forces but also 180 million people of Pakistan would fight to the last for these assets which are deterrents to the enemy. The people of Pakistan hold our nuclear assets and the father of Pakistan's nuclear programme, Dr. A.Q. Khan more dear than their own lives. From my point of view the end of our nuclear assets will be the end of Pakistan.
My dear readers! Pakistan has to stay and ultimately play a befitting role in the comity of nations. Our weakness exposed as a result of the recent powerful Abbottabad ambush needs a thorough debate and a national vision should be developed so that any other Abbottabad-like operation is given a rapid and strong response. For this, all stakeholders including civilian leadership, military leadership and opposition should sit together and evolve a dependable mechanism with all possible minutest details.
The creation of Pakistan had the backing of divine forces. I have definite proof of that. Therefore, please look forward, forge national unity, come at the back of our Armed Forces and play your role in strengthening this State of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Is US inching towards Pak nuclear assets?
Why not Muslim understand that there is conspiracy of divide and conquer against them.
i feel usa is spying every Muslim nation