Thursday, February 26, 2015

Citizenfour and Online Covert Action

Of course, everyone should see Citizenfour:

Looking at the summary of disclosures since 2013, I was reminded (?) about the revelations at the Intercept a year ago about the GCHQ unit JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group) and its program of “Online Covert Action.”

Glenn Greenwald wrote at the time:
Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.

…The broader point is that, far beyond hacktivists, these surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats.

…Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.
It seems that for some reason this information didn’t fully register with me at the time. Naturally, it’s of great interest to me. Two observations:

First, corporations do this, too.

Second, seeing the documents (like the set of slides Greenwald links to – “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations”) evokes a mixture of rage and…sadness. Someone put this presentation together, and this is actual work people do. Like the employees of the repressive secret services of East Germany or Iran, they have, for whatever reason, chosen to devote years if not their lives to this. In some cases, people have dedicated their professional knowledge and understanding of psychology and sociology not to serving real needs, but to manipulating, deceiving, and destroying people in the service of the state. This is their legacy. It’s pathetic.

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