Manipulating the results of online polls, artificially inflating pageview counts, spoofing email accounts — the U.K.’s secretive GCHQ can do it all, and maybe more.
In the year since Edward Snowden disclosed classified documents detailing the private dealings of the intelligence communities of the “Five Eyes” — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — and their covert surveillance of civilian electronic communications, the world has grown privy to the lengths that these nations would go to not only to protect their national interests, but to learn the secrets of the rest of the world. From massive data storage centers to secret transoceanic cable taps, the reach of these surveillance attempts have led many to characterize the actions of the “Five Eyes” as immoral, unconscionable, unethical and likely illegal.
Journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwald released a document on the website The Intercept on Monday, detailing the tactics the U.K.’s GCHQ employed to manipulate perceptions of Internet momentum or popularity for specific issues or targets. These tactics include manipulating the results of online polls, artificially inflating or changing websites’ pageview counts, amplifying the number of sanctioned or blocked view messages for YouTube, and censoring video content the intelligence community determined was “extremist.”
The document, “JTRIG Tools and Techniques,” was made available as the British Parliament opened a debate on a bill that would expand the government’s surveillance powers.
The document places the British government under a sharp light, as many of the techniques cataloged in this listing of JTRIG’s “weaponized capability” to hack the Internet are crimes the U.S. and the U.K. have prosecuted hackers for employing, including distributed denial of service attacks and “call bombing.” Among other capabilities, JTRIG claims to be capable of carrying out mass email and SMS deliveries, disrupting video-based websites and removing content, provisioning real-time Skype call records and instant messaging, disabling target accounts on a remote computer, and spoofing any email address and sending email under that identity.
These are all capabilities thought to be within the National Security Agency’s arsenal, as well. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Central Command announced its intentions to hire employees to engage and challenge bloggers that post “inaccurate or untrue information” concerning the global war on terror. In 2006, a declassified 2003 briefing, “Information Operations Roadmap,” highlighted the Pentagon’s plans to control the public’s opinion on the war on terror by employing public affairs officers to brief journalists and by using psychological operations (“psyops”) to control the message broadcast online and on television — both domestically and abroad.
Greenwald’s disclosure also comes at a time when the British intelligence community — GCHQ, MI5, MI6 — has admitted in court at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that it has harvested a “haystack” of private phone calls, text messages and emails from innocent people in order to find and target terrorist suspects. While the intelligence community decries this surveillance as lawful and appropriate, critics argue that the sweeps — which they claim entail almost all or all Internet and telephone communications originating, terminating or passing through British territory, via the use of the NSA’s PRISM program and GCHQ’s Tempora — are not consistent with the law or with established human rights. This case is one of the few that have been allowed to be heard in open court. For the most part, no one in the British Cabinet or in Parliament knew the extent of GCHQ’s and the NSA’s spying capability prior to the Snowden disclosure, reported Chris Huhne, cabinet member from 2010 to 2012, to the Guardian.
“The cabinet was told nothing about GCHQ’s Tempora or its US counterpart, the NSA’s Prism, nor about their extraordinary capability to hoover up and store personal emails, voice contact, social networking activity and even internet searches,” said Huhne.
“The revelations put a giant question mark into the middle of our surveillance state. The state should not feel itself entitled to know, see and memorise everything that the private citizen communicates. The state is our servant.”
These disclosures are important because they indicate that the “Five Eyes” appreciate the power of “groupthink” and have taken actions to control it. Sensing that a person is more likely to believe or adhere to a concept or notion if many others do, the intelligence communities are attempting to cultivate this “herd mentality” by making popular stories critical to the intelligence communities’ objectives seem less popular, while inflating the popularity of stories and memes that support the communities’ objectives.
One way of doing this is by resetting the viewcount on YouTube videos or convincing YouTube administrators to freeze or even rollback the viewcount of targeted videos. Another tactic is to make YouTube videos unavailable for viewing by tagging them “private” or in violation of copyright laws. While the video owner can easily resolve the “misunderstanding,” the action would be enough to slow or stall the public demand that particular piece of media had.
Forum moderators can also achieve this goal by actively and covertly destroying links to controversial stories. In doing this, moderators can accurately argue that a story has been posted multiple times and has been allowed to gain momentum without anyone in the forums actually being able to get to the story from the posts. This destroys the story’s “social proof,” or the sense that a story is true because many people believe it to be true.
The “Five Eyes” are not the only nations that use “dark Internet” tactics for their own gain, however. Israel regularly uses Internet-based propaganda and “online activism” to counter negative PR about the nation and to attack Hezbollah — typically, through the use of spam, while China uses paid “Internet commentators” to post on news sites and online forums in an attempt to spin bad news regarding the Chinese government into positive press.