Tag: JTRIG

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwald

One of the many pressing stories that remains to be told from the Snowden archive is how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction. It’s time to tell a chunk of that story, complete with the relevant documents.

Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four  classified  GCHQ  documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance.

Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.”

By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses.

But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

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.

Here is one illustrative list of tactics from the latest GCHQ document we’re publishing today:

Other tactics aimed at individuals are listed here, under the revealing title “discredit a target”:

Then there are the tactics used to destroy companies the agency targets:

GCHQ describes the purpose of JTRIG in starkly clear terms: “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world,” including “information ops (influence or disruption).”

Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. In fact, 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.

The title page of one of these documents reflects the agency’s own awareness that it is “pushing the boundaries” by using “cyber offensive” techniques against people who have nothing to do with terrorism or national security threats, and indeed, centrally involves law enforcement agents who investigate ordinary crimes:

No matter your views on Anonymous, “hacktivists” or garden-variety criminals, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes – with these sorts of online, deception-based tactics of reputation destruction and disruption.

There is a strong argument to make, as Jay Leiderman demonstrated in the Guardian in the context of the Paypal 14 hacktivist persecution, that the “denial of service” tactics used by hacktivists result in (at most) trivial damage (far less than the cyber-warfare tactics favored by the US and UK) and are far more akin to the type of political protest protected by the First Amendment.

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.

As Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, “targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent.” Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that “there is anything terrorist or violent in their actions.”

Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, have long been the source of speculation.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, [co-author of “Nudge”], a close Obama adviser and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Ironically, the very same Sunstein was recently named by Obama to serve as a member of the NSA review panel created by the White House, one that – while disputing key NSA claims – proceeded to propose many cosmetic reforms to the agency’s powers (most of which were ignored by the President who appointed them).

But these GCHQ documents are the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is the use of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds. Today’s newly published document touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption”:

Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”:

The documents lay out theories of how humans interact with one another, particularly online, and then attempt to identify ways to influence the outcomes – or “game” it:

 

We submitted numerous questions to GCHQ, including: (1) Does GCHQ in fact engage in “false flag operations” where material is posted to the Internet and falsely attributed to someone else?; (2) Does GCHQ engage in efforts to influence or manipulate political discourse online?; and (3) Does GCHQ’s mandate include targeting common criminals (such as boiler room operators), or only foreign threats?

As usual, they ignored those questions and opted instead to send their vague and nonresponsive boilerplate: “It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position.”

These agencies’ refusal to “comment on intelligence matters” – meaning: talk at all about anything and everything they do – is precisely why whistleblowing is so urgent, the journalism that supports it so clearly in the public interest, and the increasingly unhinged attacks by these agencies so easy to understand. Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.

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.

Documents referenced in this article:

Controversial GCHQ Unit Engaged in Domestic Law Enforcement, Online Propaganda, Psychology Research – Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman

Introduction

A visit by Government national security agents on Saturday 20 July 2013 to smash up computers at The Guardian newspaper office in London hit the news surprisingly quietly, when Edward Snowden exposed a gross abuse of power and revealed mass surveillance programmes by American and British secret policing agencies (NSA and GCHQ) last year. (More detailed information here).

David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian interviewer of the whistleblower Edward Snowden, was held for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act. Officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

This was a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process, and Greenwald said:

“To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation.”

Absolutely. Since when was investigative journalism a crime?

Since it flies in the face of an increasingly authoritarian and psychocratic government that exercises rigid control over public access to information, and manipulates public perceptions and behaviours.

Sure, it sounds like the basis of a conspiracy theory doesn’t it?

But it’s not.

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The following article was originally posted on The Intercept site by Glenn Greenwald and Andrew FishmanReproduced here with thanks.

 

 

The spy unit responsible for some of the United Kingdom’s most controversial tactics of surveillance, online propaganda and deceit focuses extensively on traditional law enforcement and domestic activities — even though officials typically justify its activities by emphasizing foreign intelligence and counterterrorism operations.

Documents published today by The Intercept demonstrate how the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), a unit of the signals intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), is involved in efforts against political groups it considers “extremist,” Islamist activity in schools, the drug trade, online fraud and financial scams.

Though its existence was secret until last year, JTRIG quickly developed a distinctive profile in the public understanding, after documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the unit had engaged in “dirty tricks” like deploying sexual “honey traps” designed to discredit targets, launching denial-of-service attacks to shut down Internet chat rooms, pushing veiled propaganda onto social networks and generally warping discourse online.

Early official claims attempted to create the impression that JTRIG’s activities focused on international targets in places like Iran, Afghanistan and Argentina. The closest the group seemed to get to home was in its targeting of transnational “hacktivist” group Anonymous.

While some of the unit’s activities are focused on the claimed areas, JTRIG also appears to be intimately involved in traditional law enforcement areas and U.K.-specific activity, as previously unpublished documents demonstrate. An August 2009 JTRIG memo entitled “Operational Highlights” boasts of “GCHQ’s first serious crime effects operation” against a website that was identifying police informants and members of a witness protection program. Another operation investigated an Internet forum allegedly “used to facilitate and execute online fraud.” The document also describes GCHQ advice provided “to assist the UK negotiating team on climate change.”

Particularly revealing is a fascinating 42-page document from 2011 detailing JTRIG’s activities. It provides the most comprehensive and sweeping insight to date into the scope of this unit’s extreme methods. Entitled “Behavioral Science Support for JTRIG’s Effects and Online HUMINT [Human Intelligence] Operations,” it describes the types of targets on which the unit focuses, the psychological and behavioral research it commissions and exploits, and its future organizational aspirations. It is authored by a psychologist, Mandeep K. Dhami.

Among other things, the document lays out the tactics the agency uses to manipulate public opinion, its scientific and psychological research into how human thinking and behavior can be influenced, and the broad range of targets that are traditionally the province of law enforcement rather than intelligence agencies.

JTRIG’s domestic and law enforcement operations are made clear. The report states that the controversial unit “currently collaborates with other agencies” including the Metropolitan police, Security Service (MI5), Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), Border Agency, Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and National Public Order and Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). The document highlights that key JTRIG objectives include “providing intelligence for judicial outcomes”; monitoring “domestic extremist groups such as the English Defence League by conducting online HUMINT”; “denying, deterring or dissuading” criminals and “hacktivists”; and “deterring, disrupting or degrading online consumerism of stolen data or child porn.”

It touts the fact that the unit “may cover all areas of the globe.” Specifically, “operations are currently targeted at” numerous countries and regions including Argentina, Eastern Europe and the U.K.

JTRIG’s domestic operations fit into a larger pattern of U.K.- focused and traditional law enforcement activities within GCHQ.

Many GCHQ documents describing the “missions” of the “customers” for which it works make clear that the agency has a wide mandate far beyond national security, including providing help on intelligence to the Bank of England, to the Department for Children, Schools and Families on reporting of “radicalization,” to various departments on agriculture and whaling activities, to government financial divisions to enable good investment decisions, to police agencies to track suspected “boiler room fraud,” and to law enforcement agencies to improve “civil and family justice.”

Previous reporting on the spy agency established its focus on what it regards as political radicalism. Beyond JTRIG’s targeting of Anonymous, other parts of GCHQ targeted political activists deemed to be “radical,” even monitoring the visits of people to the WikiLeaks website. GCHQ also stated in one internal memo that it studied and hacked popular software programs to “enable police operations” and gave two examples of cracking decryption software on behalf of the National Technical Assistance Centre, one “a high profile police case” and the other a child abuse investigation.

The JTRIG unit of GCHQ is so notable because of its extensive use of propaganda methods and other online tactics of deceit and manipulation. The 2011 report on the organization’s operations, published today, summarizes just some of those tactics:

Throughout this report, JTRIG’s heavy reliance on its use of behavioral science research (such as psychology) is emphasized as critical to its operations. That includes detailed discussions of how to foster “obedience” and “conformity”:


In response to inquiries, GCHQ refused to provide on-the-record responses beyond its boilerplate claim that all its activities are lawful.

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Documents published with this article: