Spy agencies the world over like to pretend that they keep the rest of us safe. Recent revelations from the Edward Snowden leaks have shown yet again what a blatant lie that is.
The Intercept and NBC have published a range of presentations by the British spy agency GCHQ, which outline a range of dirty tactics employed by the agency. One of these presentations, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations”, demonstrates that the tactics range from spreading computer viruses to social and sexual manipulation of their targets.
The documents make it clear that the targets are not simply those who our prime minister would describe as “baddies”. The targets are anyone who opposes government policy. One presentation, entitled “Hacktivist groups”, shows how GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) employed distributed denial of service attacks and planted malware to attack the hacktivist collective Anonymous.
The presentation brags that a week after these attacks, 80 percent of the individuals in Anonymous who had been messaged by agents were no longer in Anonymous forums.
“The discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of ‘traditional law enforcement’ against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, ‘hacktivism’, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends”, writes journalist Glenn Greenwald.
In addition to targeting online activists, the documents reveal the ways in which JTRIG attempts to undermine political engagement online and route online political discourse in a way that is favourable to its own interests. It does this firstly by employing classic trolling techniques to undermine and isolate the target.
To discredit a target, JTRIG may “Change their photos on social networking sites, write a blog purporting to be one of their victims [and] email/text their colleagues, neighbours, friends, etc.”
Second, these agencies seek to manipulate online discourse in multiple ways. For example, a presentation entitled “Full Spectrum Cyber Effects” discusses ways to set discussions on social media sites including Facebook and Flickr. This can be done through “propaganda, deception, mass messaging [and] pushing stories”.
According to Greenwald, “[T]hese agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the Internet itself.”
The Snowden leaks have proven an embarrassment to administrations around the world, including the Australian government. But, far from retreating from these tactics, these governments are bunkering down.
This is seen clearly in the recent rhetoric of the Australian government, with at least three senior ministers, including Abbott, branding Snowden a “traitor”.
Similarly, despite promising a few minor cosmetic changes, the Obama administration continues to back the NSA. Indeed, one of Obama’s appointments to the NSA review panel was only a few years ago touting a proposal for the US to “employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-’independent’ advocates to ‘cognitively infiltrate’ online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups”.
This is hardly someone you would trust with your online rights!
We have seen spying agencies use these dirty tactics against their political opponents before, with far-reaching effects. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI ran a programme called COINTELPRO. It was designed to intimidate, harass and undermine the left and civil rights activists.
In 1964, as part of COINTELPRO, the FBI spliced together recordings it had made of Martin Luther King’s private phone conversations in order to “prove” the civil rights leader was engaged in extramarital affairs. They then sent a letter to King strongly implying that the only way he could stop the release of these recordings was to commit suicide.
Just like these recent revelations about the GCHQ, COINTELPRO had nothing to do with protecting the rights of ordinary people and everything to do with undermining dissent. Both are about trying to neutralise politically those the establishment sees as a political threat.