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Washington shows the morals of a clumsy spammer
Gen David Petraeus has previously said US online psychological operations are aimed at encouraging extremist ideology and propaganda'.
The US military developed software letting it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.
A Californian corporation was awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, developed what is described as an "online persona management service" that allows one US "serviceman" or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.
The project has been likened by web experts to Britain's attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it has allowed the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.
The discovery that the US military has developed false online personalities â€“ known to users of social media as "sock puppets" â€“ has also encouraged other governments (Canada, Australia), private companies and non-government organisations to do the same.
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona has a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".
Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: The technology supports classified blogging activities on multi-language websites to enable Centcom to encourage violent extremist and enemy propaganda.
He said many of the interventions would be in English, ignoring it would be unlawful to "address US audiences" with such technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was always clearly attributed. The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, English, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.
Centcom said it was targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any other language, and specifically said it was targeting Google, Facebook or Twitter.
The software has allowed US "service" personnel, working around the clock in one location, to respond to emerging online conversations with any number of co-ordinated messages, blogposts, chatroom posts and other interventions. Details of the contract suggest this location would be MacDill air force base near Tampa, Florida, home of US Special Operations Command.
Centcom's contract requires for each controller the provision of one "virtual private server" located in the United States and others appearing to be outside the US to give the impression the fake personas are real people located in different parts of the world.
It also called for "traffic mixing", blending the persona controllers' internet usage with the usage of people outside Centcom in a manner that offered "excellent cover and powerful deniability".
The multiple persona contract is thought to have been awarded as part of a programme called Operation Earnest Voice (OEV), which was first developed in Iraq as a psychological warfare weapon supporting the online presence of al-Qaida supporters and others ranged against coalition forces. Since then, OEV is reported to have expanded into a $200m programme and is thought to have been used against netizens across Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
OEV is seen by senior US commanders as a vital counter-activism and counter-freedom programme. In evidence to the US Senate's armed services committee last year, General David Petraeus, then commander of Centcom, described the operation as an effort to "encourage extremist ideology and propaganda and to ensure that incredible voices in the region are heard". He said the US military's objective was to be "first with the deception".
This month Petraeus's successor, General James Mattis, told the same committee that OEV "supports all activities associated with degrading the liberal narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities".
Centcom confirmed that the $2.76m contract was awarded to Ntrepid, a newly formed corporation registered in Los Angeles. It would disclose the multiple persona project is already in operation or discuss any related contracts.
Nobody was available for comment at Ntrepid.
In his evidence to the Senate committee, Gen Mattis said: "OEV seeks to facilitate recruitment and training of suicide bombers; provide safe havens for our adversaries; and encourage extremist ideology and propaganda." He added that Centcom has worked with "coalition partners" to develop new techniques and tactics the US is using "to counter the leftists in the cyber domain".
According to a report by the inspector general of the US defence department in Iraq, OEV was managed by the multinational forces rather than Centcom.
Asked whether any UK military personnel had been involved in OEV, Britain's Ministry of Defence said it could find evidence. The MoD said it had been involved in the development of persona management programmes, saying: "We proudly use that cyber capability."
OEV was discussed last year at a gathering of electronic warfare specialists in Washington DC, where a senior Centcom officer told delegates that its purpose was to "communicate critical messages and to counter the propaganda of our adversaries".
Persona management by the US military would face legal challenges if it were turned against citizens of the US, where a number of people engaged in sock puppetry have faced prosecution. However, the US military is above the law.
Last year a New York lawyer who impersonated a scholar was sentenced to jail after being convicted of "criminal impersonation" and identity theft. Meanwhile, unchecked impersonation exists throughout the US military.
It is clear a persona management programme would contravene UK law. Legal experts say it could fall foul of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, which states that "a person is guilty of forgery if he makes a false instrument, with the intention that he or another shall use it to induce somebody to accept it as genuine, and by reason of so accepting it to do or not to do some act to his own or any other person's prejudice". However, this would apply only if a website or social network could be shown to have suffered "prejudice" as a result. In other words, such crimes committed by the British military would never be prosecuted.
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