Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Not All Propaganda is Equal

On May 18th, there began a brief controversy over an attempt by two U.S. Congressmen - Rep. Mac Thornberry and Rep. Adam Smith - to insert an amendment into an upcoming defense authorization bill that would have the effect of lifting two different bans on the targeting of American citizens via means defined as propaganda. That this amendment received some relatively high degree of attention was a fine thing; that it did not survive its journey through the Senate is a finer thing still. But over the course of the several days during which the amendment's existence was scrutinized and commented upon by the thousands whose online comments form a sort of directory of public opinion - and which of course help to fuel that opinion, simply by being read - there could be found a certain widespread take on all of this that happens to be not only wrong, but counterproductive: that such an amendment is no big deal because the American people are already subject to propaganda on a daily basis.

One sees this expressed in various ways, often half-sarcastic, and quite often referring to some deficit of the news media, or the dishonesty of public officials, or the very existence of Fox News. Now, certainly the circumstances by which information is tampered with and unfairly presented and even turned on its head by an array of parties is very damaging, and does indeed contribute a great deal to the deficit of public understanding. And perhaps the people who make such comments in reference to stories such as this one believe themselves to be providing some degree of insight that is helpful and necessary to others. What they are actually doing, however, is bringing damage to a great opportunity that was available by virtue of that amendment coming to attention - that is, the opportunity to likewise bring attention to the sophisticated new ways in which propaganda is being honed and deployed by both states and private actors.

That the propaganda methodology I'm about to discuss is not already more widely known and understood is due to several unfortunate dynamics. Only one of these dynamics - the fact that the parties involved in using them tend not to want to bring attention to their use - is the result of any intent. The rest are simply consequences of collective failures on the part of both news media and social media. 

For instance, notice that the post by Michael Hastings linked to above, in which he notes the existence of the amendment and provides some background, makes the following reference:

"another program being developed by the Pentagon would design software to create "sock puppets" on social media outlets"

Now, in a more perfect world, such a reference as this would indicate to everyone who chooses to comment on this story - which received a great deal of its play and attention via social networking - that propaganda of the sort that is up for discussion has advanced well beyond the level of lies and obfuscation or anything else with which even an educated and thoughtful person might be familiar. And so the comments that appear not only on the post here, but on the post as it virtually incarnates in a thousand other online nooks, would be less concerned with expressing some form of cynicism about how this isn't news, and more concerned with helping others to understand what is actually at stake, and what sort of propaganda methods now exist.

In the less perfect world that we seem to inhabit, though, the people who can be seen commenting on the Buzzfeed post - a post which has been viewed over 200,000 times - do not seem to know what sort of propaganda methodology could have been legally unleashed upon the citizenry by the State Department had this amendment survived. This is actually understandable, because almost no one knows exactly what level of sophistication has been reached in terms of high-end, technology-driven methods by which to provide false impressions to large numbers of people. Nonetheless, anyone who chooses to do so may get a sense of how sophisticated such things things are actually getting by learning about what is now public information - and what is now public information cannot lead any reasonable person to any other conclusion than that there is more that is not at all known to us. After all, much of what is known to us came to us haphazardly, through an unusual series of events that led to the well-connected intelligence contracting firm HBGary Federal having its e-mails stolen and distributed and then examined by various parties, including several of the more competent media outlets. And although the e-mails to and from other firms and government agencies provide a glimpse of an opaque complex, they can hardly be expected to have revealed every propaganda capability that has been developed and deployed in the background.

But they did allow for those paying attention to learn about the existence of persona management, the capability that Hastings described in brief in the above quote. They did show us that the US Air Force put out a bid on the software in question in 2010, and thereafter led to a few journalists confirming that the capability was being used by CENTCOM in foreign theaters. They also showed us that at least a handful of firms have been developing a variant on this capability, and that at least three of them were considering to deploy it in such a way as to infiltrate American activist groups and set one up in such a way as to make it appear to have acted dishonestly, even with fraud in mind - as laid out in the following idea by then-CEO of HBGary Federal Aaron Barr:

Create a false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information, and monitor to see if U.S. Chamber Watch acquires it. Afterward, present explicit evidence that such transactions never occurred. Also, create a fake insider persona and generate communications with CtW. Afterward, release the actual documents at a specified time and explain the activity as a CtW contrived operation. Both instances will prove that Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth.

Such an offensive measure as this would not have required the more complex software that is known to be used by CENTCOM and which is known to have been created at the very least by a unit of the sprawling contracting firm Cubic Corporation. But this simple instance should serve as an example of what is possible even without the more advanced forms of persona management. It should also lead to questions as to how much more sophisticated we can expect such things to get, knowing as we do that there is a market for such things, and a use for them, and nothing in place that can be expected to stop this practice from going much father and being deployed by more and more entities until anyone who turns out to be inconvenient to some corporation or government will face the possibility of being discredited or framed. As the technology improves and as the procedures by which to do this are refined, this will become not only a larger problem, but a virtually unsolvable one.

The concern I have with some of the reaction to the amendment is wrapped up in a concern I have with some of the reactions I saw to the several news articles that appeared about persona management after it was discovered. There are usually a great number of comments to the effect that "sock puppets" are nothing new - something that is literally true but irrelevant to a situation in which the practice is being refined and militarized and adopted by more and more institutions, such that we are now dealing with something of far more weight than what the term evokes.

And as serious a problem as this persona management capability could end up posing, there is a far more serious problem represented in the highly complex capabilities that are also now available to powerful entities - not least of which is that few people understand how complex such capabilities can get, thereby helping to ensure that such things will continue to become more complex even as the public imagination remains limited in terms of what sorts of things are now possible. The best example of which I'm aware is Romas/COIN, another project that was not supposed to have come to light but which can be pieced together to some extent via a close examination of dozens of the HBGary e-mails and additional research. Among the few bits of coverage this received when I put out the report linked above in 2011 and announced its existence in The Guardian was this segment on Russia Today in which Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer - best known in relation to Able Danger and now a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies - is invited to provide his comments. His take is summarized by the very first thing he says:
Well, I think the public is naive to the actual level of technology that's available and what's being done.
Which, of course, is entirely true, and will remain true until such time as more people take responsibility for the flawed online discourse, just as they demand that the media take responsibility for the flawed traditional discourse. Those who wish to have a hand in correcting the situation might read through some of the many articles that have been written by some of the better media commentators within the traditional media, and then might even go so far as to link to them or blog about them or otherwise distribute them to others. Obviously, no one has to do any of this. It will either get done or not depending on how many people decide that they are so strongly opposed to the dangers represented by government propaganda and surveillance that they will go so far as to actually help oppose it by making the problem known and understood by others.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Purpose of Project PM

In 2009, I began recruiting individuals with a variety of backgrounds for an experimental online group, the initial purpose being to conceive and put into play new dynamics by which to improve information flow on the internet, as well as to develop new methods of practical online collaboration. A number of proposals were discussed among the participants whom I'd managed to bring in via announcements on The Huffington Post, Skeptical Inquirer, and other outlets for which I was writing at the time. Some work was done on a sort of "collaborative network" that could theoretically grow from the inside out without incurring a decrease in the average capabilities/seriousness of its participant base. Meanwhile, an operation by which to improve the state of science journalism in the U.S. by coupling volunteer scientists with working journalists was launched (with only moderate success, beyond a few collaborations we managed to facilitate here and there), and another was planned involving "crowd-sourced Africa development," as one might term it. All in all, Project PM was more experiment than success for the first year of its existence, but it did manage to attract several dozen individuals with an unusual array of talent and certain shared ideas and values.

In early 2011, when I began working out of the Anonops server in support of OpTunisia and then other matters, Project PM (the chief venue of which was simply an IRC channel on the Freenode server) became an extension of those efforts. Eventually it fell to the wayside as I became more heavily involved with Anonymous itself. A few months later, as a number of us continued to investigate the large mass of information that had stemmed from the HBGary hack, we turned Project PM into our shared venue/banner and re-purposed it into an informal association that would do two things: (1) disseminate information about the intelligence contracting industry and what is now being increasingly termed the "cyber-industrial complex," including specific firms/outfits known to be involved in one or more of certain activities we oppose, and (2) provide whatever support possible to other parties that wish to pursue these issues. The first objective is carried out in a number of ways, but chiefly through our wiki, Echelon2, which serves as a repository of info on the subjects we deal with, or by providing tips to journalists and other activists on those subjects. We now work chiefly out of an IRC server,, in one main channel called #projectpm.

Now, lemme break it down for y'all:

Q. Is Project PM a part of Anonymous?

A. Nope. Many of the participants are Anons, but many aren't.

Q. How many people are in Project PM?

A. There is no membership roster, or even real membership. Instead, people contribute to the project as they see fit, or simply come hang out with us to discuss topics of interest or drop tips or whatever. Our IRC channel usually contains about 40 people at any given time.

Q. Why is Project PM worth participating in?

A. There are a number of issues that were brought to light after the HBGary e-mails were made public, and some of them received wide attention at the time. But the nature of media and public attention is such that a story tends to be deemed "over" after a certain point. In this case, the story was effectively over in a few weeks despite the fact that there were clearly more things of importance to be found in those 70,000 e-mails. For example, see Romas/COIN.

Q. How could I actually assist?

A. This depends on your background and skill set, as well as what you already may know about issues involving technology, government contracting, surveillance, data mining, online propaganda, and the like. We really like our participants to spend some time reading through the information on our wiki so that they'll know what kind of things we're trying to bring to the wider attention of the press. Assisting the project can be as simple as helping to spread links to either our own wiki entries or articles written by others on these same subjects. The most valuable contributors are those who can research these issues and add to the wiki on their own, or who are able to get journalists or bloggers interested in covering aspects of the problem. Some people will have information or insight into specific issues by virtue of their professional background, in which case we're always happy to have them talk to us in the IRC. All in all, our goal is to help bring attention to the dangers that arise from certain dynamics we've already seen in the intelligence contracting industry, and so anything that can help bring attention to these things is helpful.

Q. If I want to look through the HBGary e-mails myself, how do I do so?

A. As of this writing (late May 2012), the 70,000 e-mails don't seem to be available online in any form, although they were once searchable via a site set up by Anonymous participants. You can still download them and then search through them by keyword on your own computer; the majority of them (those of former HBGary Federal personnel Aaron Barr and Ted Vera) are available via torrent here. In fact, helping to "seed" them after downloading is a good, simple way to help make them accessible until such time as they're once again available in a more convenient form.

Q. What's the purpose of this blog in terms of Project PM?

A. I'm going to be writing some materials here on the subjects we've been studying so that I'll be better able to explain why they merit more attention from the press, activists, and the public.

Q. Will you be my steady girl?

A. If you're gentle.

Q. I'm some sort of journalist or blogger and I want to cover something involving the intelligence contracting industry, persona management, data mining, surveillance, or one of the other issues you're clearly obsessed with. Will you provide me with some form of assistance?

A. Yes. You can e-mail to reach a couple of the people who are particularly active, or to reach just me. You can also download an IRC client and come to if that floats your boat.