To get a political message out these days, the Internet is essential. Online, and particularly on social media, public opinion is often gauged by the ability to marshal the digital grassroots. But as a primary source for today's news consumers, the Internet has become the latest front for conflicts across the world, as states and their supporters seek to mobilize and manipulate public opinion of their cause.
Such is the case for the ragtag group of pro-Syrian hackers known as the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). They have garnered significant headlines since 2011 for brazenly hacking Syrian opposition websites, Western websites (particularly of the news media) and spamming popular Facebook pages with pro-Assad commentary. On Jan. 23, CNN was hacked by the SEA, just a week after Microsoft confirmed that a "small number" of employee email accounts had been compromised.
Image Credit: NBC News
Although it claims to be unaffiliated with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a detailed 2011 report of SEA activities by the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs showed that the 'hacktivist' organization initially operated with at least "tacit support" from Damascus. But in May 2013, the SEA advertised that the Syrian Computer Society (SCS), the government agency that regulates domain names, had cut the group off. Prominent U.S.-based web services have also suspended the SEA for their activities.
So is the Syrian government mobilizing hackers and commenters in its online propaganda war? Probably. But they're pretty late in the game when it comes such tactics. The U.S. and its allies are far ahead.
Leaks from Edward Snowden revealed the massive extent of the NSA's Tailored Access Operations hacking wing. Prominent websites deemed to be "enem[ies]" of the state are routinely subject to denial-of-service attacks. But what about social media and comment forum propaganda?
The graphic shows the increase of various forms of government-sponsored hacking methods. Image Credit: Der Spiegel
According to a 2010 contract solicitation, the United States Air Force was seeking providers of "persona management software" that would allow for 50 users to control up to 500 fictional personae over social media. The sockpuppets were required to be "replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presence that are technically, culturally, and geographically consistent" and would be used to support "classified blogging activities," according to the chief media officer of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
MacDill Air Force Base, where the contract originated, is home to the United States Special Operations Command, the overseer of all special-forces activity globally. USSOCOM lists under its "core activities" the employment of psychological operations and information operations — exactly the type of activity that would implement "sockpuppeting" technology.
Journalist Barrett Brown is currently facing over 100 years in jail for posting a link between chat rooms. He pioneered ProjectPM, a wiki dedicated to analyzing hacked emails from the cybersecurity firm and government contractor HBGary, in which the USAF persona management contract was initially discovered. [Image Credit: Molly Crabapple]
Or take the primary ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, Israel. In 2009, in the midst of Operation Cast Lead, an organization of Israeli students known as "Help Israel Win" developed a botnet program to infect the computers of willing participants. The leaders of the group were then able to mobilize the web of computers to instigate DDoS attacks against Palestinian websites, much the same way as the SEA. According to analyses from iDefense and SANS Institute, the software trojan — a program that sneaks malicious computer code onto a computer — effectively gave free reign for the group to make use of any participant's computer system as they pleased.
It was also declared then that Tel Aviv was establishing a special "army of bloggers" to surf the Internet and provide pro-Israeli commentary on websites considered "problematic." Among the "target sites" listed are the New York Times, the Guardian, Sky News, BBC, Yahoo! News, Huffington Post and the Dutch Telegraaf.
“Hasbara fellows” pose after training by Aish HaTorah International, an Orthodox Jewish NGO and yeshiva, or religious school. Hasbara, Hebrew for “explaining," refers to international PR efforts designed to benefit the public image of Israel. Aish HaTorah’s Hasbara Fellowship program was co-founded with the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 2001. [Image Credit: Aish International]
Those efforts were expanded when the Israeli Prime Minister's Office announced the formation of "covert units" of hundreds of students within Israel's seven universities to promote Israeli government aims in online comment forums and social media. The heads of each university unit, known as "senior coordinators," receive full scholarships from the Prime Minister's Office for their participation, out of a budget of close to 3 million shekels (about $860,000). Daniel Seaman, the former director of Government Press Office, wrote of the program, "[t]he idea requires that the state's role not be highlighted and therefore it is necessary to insist on major involvement by the students themselves without any political link [or] affiliation."
The growth of state-sponsored cyberattacks, hacks and web-based propaganda is troubling and worth monitoring – and we should be paying far more attention to it.