America’s spy agencies want to read your blog posts, keep track of your Twitter updates — even check out your book reviews on Amazon. Yikes I certainly hope not. In case they are, “good afternoon guys.”
In 2009, In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA and the wider intelligence community, put cash into Visible Technologies, a software firm that specializes in monitoring social media. It’s part of a larger movement within the spy services to get better at using ”open source intelligence” — information that’s publicly available, but often hidden in the flood of TV shows, newspaper articles, blog posts, online videos and radio reports generated every day.
At that time Visible Technology crawled over half a million web sites a day, scraping more than a million posts and conversations taking place on blogs, online forums, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. It didn’t touch closed social networks, like Facebook, it does now.
Most people use social media like Facebook and Twitter to share photos of friends and family, chat with friends and strangers about random and amusing diversions, or follow their favorite websites, bands and television shows. But what does the US military use those same networks for? Well, no one can tell you…that’s “classified.”
One use that is confirmed, however, is the manipulation of social media through the use of fake online “personas” managed by the military. Recently the US Air Force had solicited private sector vendors for something called “persona management software.” Such a technology would allow single individuals to command virtual armies of fake, digital “people” across numerous social media portals.
These “personas” were to have detailed, fictionalized backgrounds, to make them believable to outside observers, and a sophisticated identity protection service was to back them up, preventing suspicious readers from uncovering the real person behind the account. They even worked out ways to game geolocating services, so these “personas” could be virtually inserted anywhere in the world, providing ostensibly live commentary on real events, even while the operator was not really present.
When the story was first reported on the Air Force contract for this software, it was unclear what the Air Force wanted with it or even if it had been acquired. The potential for misuse, however, was abundantly clear. A fake virtual army of people could be used to help create the impression of consensus opinion in online comment threads, or manipulate social media to the point where valuable stories are suppressed. Ultimately, this can have the effect of causing a net change to the public’s opinions and understanding of key world events.
Perhaps even this blog was created by a fake persona…who is Jerry474 anyway?