According to some of the newest Edward Snowden leaks as reported on by Glenn Greenwald on Monday, government spies are infiltrating websites in an effort to persuade public opinion and discredit opposition.
The documents from the GCHQ (the British equivalent of the NSA), titled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations,” were given to the NSA and leaked by Snowden. They reveal that the GCHQ is involved, through a unit known as JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group), in “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.”
Further, according to Greenwald, “these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.”
The goals of the JTRIG program are “(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.”
They do this through the use of several tactics, as listed by a slide from the documents: “Infiltration Operation,” “Ruse operation,” “Set Piece Operation,” “False Flag Operation,” “False Rescue Operation,” Disruption Operation” and “Sting Operation.”
Another slide lists ways to “discredit a target”: “Set up a honey-trap,” “Change their photos on social networking sites,” “Write a blog purporting to be one of their victims,” “Email/text their colleagues, neighbours, friends, etc.”
There's also a slide on how to discredit a business: “Leak confidential information to companies/the press via blogs etc,” “Post negative information on appropriate forums,” “Stop deals/ruin business relationships.”
A further slide lists the definition of the effects of the agency's activities: “Using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world.” This includes two categories: “Information Ops (influence or disruption)” and “Technical disruption,” along with the four D's: “Deny/Disrupt/Degrade/Deceive.”
Greenwald also points out that these tactics are not just used for counter-terrorism, but “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,” writes Greenwald.
While the idea that government has paid people, known as shills, to post in message boards and other websites in an effort to disrupt conversations has long been believed by conspiracy theorists, this would seem to confirm that it's happening.
There have been similar reports in the past of the government attempting to influence public opinion through the Internet.
As Greenwald mentions in his article, Cass Sunstein, Obama's former science czar, wrote in a paper that the government should employ people to “cognitively infiltrate” groups including “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.” His main target was conspiracy theorists. He further proposed making it illegal to be a conspiracy theorist.
Sunstein has since been placed on the panel reviewing the NSA's spy program by Pres. Obama.