Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media Military’s ‘sock puppet’ software creates fake online identities to spread pro-American propaganda
General David Petraeus has previously said US online psychological operations are aimed at ‘countering extremist ideology and propaganda’.
The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter 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.
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 Facebook messages, blogposts, tweets, retweets, 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.
How to Detect a Fake Facebook Profile
Posted by dotJenna on May 3rd, 2010 in Facebook Tips
BEWARE!!! Do not automatically assume that all your Facebook friends are real people, or are who they say they are. There are crooks, liars, thiefs and predators who create false profiles using other people’s identities and stolen pictures. The anonymity of the web gives the perfect cover for bad people. I’ve heard some heart-breaking stories ranging from fake relationships to rape and murder. Please pass this article. Check your friend list and eliminate anyone you suspect may be a fake. It could be a matter of life and death for you, or someone in your network.
Stay alert when allowing friends into your network. We share a lot of information on these sites; data that in the wrong hands can be disastrous. The fakes are pretty easy to spot once you know their sneaky tricks. I found a few fake Facebook profiles that are sprinkled throughout this article. Click on the images below to see a larger view of what fake profilers do.
How Fake Profilers Work
Someone operating with a false made-up identity is a con. Do not be naive. Con-artists prey on vulnerabilities of unsuspecting people, seeking to defraud them out of value (ie: money, attention, sex or worse). Most of us don’t think like criminals, so it’s hard to fathom deliberate deception. Frauds, liars and crooks however, prey on this weakness, knowing we don’t suspect foul play. We must be vigilant. It’s unpleasant to ponder, but we must realize that bad people who mean harm are lurking in our friendly networks. Stay alert, especially when it comes to letting people see your very personal and private information. Tell every teen you know as they are more susceptible to flattery and in need of attention, and can suffer serious consequences.
Be leery of anyone who is too friendly, too “into” your everything you post or complimenting you daily. This is not normal behavior and could be an imposter trying to flatter you. It’s hard to resist when someone feeds your ego, saying everything you want to hear, but don’t be a mark. Fake creeps are not sincere.
Most fakers have several fake profiles on the web, so do not be fooled if you are friends with two people who interact and vouch for one another. This happened to me, and turned out to be one person. Imposters will also try to make you more comfortable by interacting with your other friends and family members. They create fake relationships, fake Twitter profiles, fake websites and anything else that will get you to take your guard down and trust them. I’ve seen companies created, false addresses given and fake voice mailboxes set-up. (No, I’m not kidding, wish I were.)
Fakers Go Unexposed
It is humiliating to be duped by an imposter, so many instances of harm by these crooks go unreported in your network. Shame and embarrassment stop the “viral” process. Chances that you have a harmful person posing with a fake profile on your Facebook profile are very high. If a faker wants something from you, he or she will tell you everything you want to hear while pumping you for private information. He or she will then try to blackmail you to keep you quiet. Facebook imposters are not stupid. They know how to keep their identity concealed, even after their victims know the truth.
Every Man for Himself
Unfortunately there is no law yet for operating a fake Facebook Profile. There is a huge gap in legislature regarding the web. Technology is moving so fast while our government seems to be getting slower. The web is like the Wild West where you must take care of yourself by arming yourself with knowledge. No one will take care of the validity of your network for you. You must do so for yourself and your family members. There are laws under consideration due to serious crimes that have occurred, but these laws apply to children and teens, not adults. We need to get the word out to save heartache and lives.
Carefully Consider Your Friends
Don’t get in a hurry when allowing friends into your network. Check the profile carefully to make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate person. Before accepting a friend request from someone you’ve never met in person, check them out thoroughly.
Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Friend
If more than 2-3 of the following points are true, you’re very likely dealing with a fake person. I recommend deleting them or blocking their profile. Not every fake profiler intends you harm at all, but then again, why are they hiding? Create your own set of boundaries to determine what profiles you allow into your network. Don’t just let anyone in, even if you’re a marketer.
Does the pic look perfect?
A perfect pic is cause for alert. People are not perfect, so check any profile carefully that has a model photo or a stock photo as the profile picture. This also applies for pics of beautiful women and handsome men. Don’t let your libido drive you to trusting someone because they fulfill a fantasy. Make sure the person is not really a troll in real life.
Do you see pics of the person’s family?
A real person will have pics of family on their Facebook Profile. If a person does not, it doesn’t mean it’s fake, just let that be a red-flag.
Is the person tagged by anyone on the web?
A real person will have friends on Facebook with whom they are engaging. A real person has a life and will have tagged photos of him or herself in the Photo Gallery.
Are there more photos of objects than the person?
Fakers often try to make the photo area full by adding pics of odd items like flowers, trees, and other graphics. Real people don’t usually add a zillion object-oriented photos to their Facebook Account. If they do, then they will also have personal pics too.
Does the person talk?
A faker may have so many fake accounts, he or she can’t comment regularly. I have seen fake profilers comment often, so this is not always the case, but sometimes you can tell from the posts made if the person is legitimate. Some fake profiles are easier to distinguish than others.
Does the person fulfill your every fantasy?
If a really cute girl is acting like a total slut, saying all the right things, chances are it’s really a guy living out his fantasies. (Sorry, but welcome to Facebook.) Same goes for a hot guy telling you that you’re the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen–if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Does the person have several photos?
Beware because entire photo albums can easily be stolen. Real Facebook photos are added in layers. A cute girl who seems socially active will have SEVERAL photo albums, not just 1-2. A cute girl (or guy) will also have SEVERAL profile pics. If you see a profile with 1-2 photos of a person and then several pics of objects, you know it’s a fake. Photos can be easily swiped from other profiles anywhere in the world. A profile with only 1 picture is a fake unless the person is brand new.
Does the person interact with his or her FB friends outside of FB?
You can tell this by the people who post on the page. Fakes operate only on the web, they won’t have posts, comments or photos of real-life activities. The posts will all be related to Facebook activities. If there is interaction, a faker will have it only with “Facebook” friends. Look for signs of real life–especially photos. Photos of outside activities need to have the person’s pics throughout.
Are there several “doo dad” widgets on the Profile page?
Fakes will use a lot of widgets to try to “beef up” the page and make it look more used. Too many widgets is a sign that a page is a fake.
Is the info area filled out completely?
A sparse info page can be a sign of a fake, however, I’ve seen fake profiles with very elaborate made-up personal info on the info page–so don’t let this be the only thing you check. Go to the website. Don’t trust the Twitter account because fakers can easily create a fake Twitter account to fool you.
Can the person be found in a Google Search?
Practically everyone has info on themselves on Google. Check the person in Google. Find websites from prior years listing the person. Do not accept as proof recent social media profiles or recent websites. Many fakers are very astute in web design and can whip up websites in a jiffy. Find proof of a life prior to this year. Find pics of earlier times, even it it’s just 2 years ago.
Does the person give his or her full name?
A full name should be given on the profile, not a fake name. This is not the only indicator, but one of the things you want to check.
Do Not Be Fooled
Do not be fooled by the following:
* The person seems normal.
* The person is friends with many of your friends already.
* The person engages with you regularly.
Allowing Fakes to Get Close to You
The real danger is in allowing someone who is not real into your social circle, where you interact and engage directly with them. This is dangerous because bonds are built between people, and you may be building a relationship with a non-existent person. That’s a terrible experience for anyone to endure. Several people have had this happen that I know. It’s a real problem.
The most vulnerable are young people who are seeking approval and may be susceptible to the cunning words of a liar.
I want to protect you from predators out there who steal other people’s pictures and identities, add a fake name and pretend like they are someone else on Facebook. Beware of Fake Facebook Profiles. The anonymity of the web gives crooks, liars and cheaters the perfect front to their game. Test every person. Don’t be afraid to look their name up on the internet. Spread the word.