Bay Of Tweets: How US Gov't Secretly Built A Twitter For Cuba, Then Freaked Out When It Became Too Successful

from the @fidelcastro dept

The Associated Press has quite an astounding story this morning that reads like a Hollywood script (in fact, I'll be amazed if it hasn't been optioned by a movie studio within days) concerning how the US government's humanitarian organization, USAID, secretly built a "Cuban Twitter" called ZunZuneo, via a secret budget that was earmarked for work in Pakistan, and how this effort sought to effectively undermine the Cuban government. This is the kind of thing you'd expect the CIA to work on, not USAID, which has a different reputation. In fact, now that this story is out, it seems likely to undermine USAID actions around the globe, as governments will insist (accurately) that it's difficult to distinguish if its mission is truly humanitarian... or more aligned with intelligence operations.

The story laid out by the Associated Press is long and complicated, full of bumbling moves by various US government officials, who appeared to accidentally build a super-successful social media project in Cuba in near total secrecy... and then freak out about what they were going to do about it. The crazier parts involve how those involved basically sought to set up a shell corporation to run the thing, after it was already built, while also raising money (and making revenue) to separate it from US government funds... all without letting the new management of this shell company know about the origins of the service. As you might imagine, that was a rather delicate operation. How do you have the US government build a successful social network in secret, and then extricate itself without the new management knowing what's going on.
"The ZZ management team will have no knowledge of the true origin of the operation; as far as they know, the platform was established by Mobile Accord," the memo said. "There should be zero doubt in management's mind and no insecurities or concerns about United States Government involvement."

The memo went on to say that the CEO's clean conscience would be "particularly critical when dealing with Cubacel." Sensitive to the high cost of text messages for average Cubans, ZunZuneo negotiated a bulk rate for texts at 4 cents a pop through a Spanish intermediary. Documents show there was hope that an earnest, clueless CEO might be able to persuade Cubacel to back the project.

Mobile Accord considered a dozen candidates from five countries to head the Spanish front company. One of them was Francoise de Valera, a CEO who was vacationing in Dubai when she was approached for an interview. She flew to Barcelona. At the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, she met with Nim Patel, who at the time was Mobile Accord's president. Eberhard had also flown in for the interviews. But she said she couldn't get a straight answer about what they were looking for.

"They talked to me about instant messaging but nothing about Cuba, or the United States," she told the AP in an interview from London.
The story is full of somewhat astounding twists, turns and subplots (seriously, go read the whole thing). Eventually, it appears that once people realized there was no way to separate out the US government, the service just sort of suddenly disappeared, though it was made to look like Cuba was blocking it (the story is a bit unclear if Cuba actually blocked it, but it's clear that the US more or less just decided to walk away and drop the project).

Either way, it's unlikely this story is over. Beyond the implications for USAID workers around the globe right now, officials in the US government are concerned about why USAID appeared to be involved in what looks a lot more like an intelligence operation (the program didn't just let Cubans talk to each other, but also sent them various questions that touched on their views on democracy and the government, and then collected the various answers).
"On the face of it there are several aspects about this that are troubling," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Appropriations Committee's State Department and foreign operations subcommittee.

"There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the disturbing fact that it apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested."
Similarly, the report details how someone on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was completely kept in the dark about this, and confronted USAID, who "refused to provide operational details." The report also notes concerns that this effort violated the US-European data protection agreement (though, to be fair, EU countries have been insisting that this is violated regularly, in part because it is).

Either way, this is quite a story that's well worth finding some time to read. It would be an entertaining story were it fiction. As a real story, however, it seems like yet another story where US meddling in foreign countries eventually leads to a lot more problems than benefits. Helping to spur greater communication and information sharing among the public is a good thing -- the US State Department has worked on a number of projects to enable more widespread internet access among citizens in various authoritarian countries -- but going so far as to build a service in secret, which is also then used to spy on the individuals in that country, seems to only create additional headaches.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    zip, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:06am

    what next?

    You just never know who you can trust these days. Reporters who are really government spies. A child vaccine program operated by the CIA. A trusted encryption company building in virtual-backdoors. And now this.

    I'm just waiting for the day when news breaks that Techdirt is actually a CIA honeypot.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:11am

    Re: what next?

    But Techdirt is already a known Google honeypot.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    icon
    Dark Helmet (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:18am

    Re: Re: what next?

    But our Google masters actually work for the CIA lizard people. WE'VE GOT YOU ALL NOW!!!!111!!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:25am

    The First rule is...

    ...that it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.

    Makes me wonder about the Ukraine ituation...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:29am

    Re: what next?

    You can never be sure, except (maybe) in hindsight. It has ever been thus. That's one of the reasons why people should be hesitant to communicate over unencrypted channels or to share personal or sensitive information through third parties. One of the minor reasons, though -- despite appearances, most surveillance nowadays is done by corporations, not governments. From supermarket "club cards" through advertising tracking through customer information sharing, ubiquitous surveillance isn't exactly being kept a secret.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Lizard Commander, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:30am

    Re: Re: Re: what next?

    Don't go blaming CIA on us. We just created NSA, you monkey-boys made the other 3 letter organizations.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    icon
    art guerrilla (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:32am

    um, USAID been spooked up a LONG time...

    it is well known that the spooks use USAID as cover for forever...
    one reason they are not welcome in a lot of places...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Monkey Boy, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 8:38am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: what next?

    Hey, don't compare me to those dumb apes. I'm too busy squishing people when the full moon is out.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 9:40am

    Re: um, USAID been spooked up a LONG time...

    As spy agencies, is there anything they can't screw up and make worse for everyone?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    Ninja (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 9:47am

    Re: The First rule is...

    Just see the statistics. The voting on whether to let Crimea be annexed or not was not accepted by actual Ukrainians so an acceptance of less than 50% turned into more than 90%.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Juan V, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 9:48am

    Re: Bay of tweets

    More on the why for further research (if this can make it past being censored?)
    (as relates to Cuba) The Real “Moral Obscenity” In Syria’s Civil War Is How We Started It
    http://www.thepeoplesvoice.org/TPV3/Voices.php/2013/08/30/the-real-moral-obscenity-in-syria-s-civi

    JFK Assassination: George Joannides’ CIA Files - Can They Help Determine Who Killed President Kennedy?
    http://tekgnosis.typepad.com/tekgnosis/2014/03/jfk-assassination-george-joannides-cia-files- can-they-help-determine-who-killed-president-kennedy.html

    Roger Stone speaks re: The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ
    http://tekgnosis.typepad.com/tekgnosis/2014/04/roger-stone-speaks-re-the-man-who-killed-kennedy-t he-case-against-lbj.html

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 9:59am

    Re: Re: The First rule is...

    It was my understanding that the vote only took place in Crimea itself and of that population, it was over 90%. However the rest of the Ukraine wasn't asked at all.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 10:36am

    The US name is becoming toxic. At the current rate we're going, it's going to take more than just replacing the entire government to regain faith. It's going to take a whole new country.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 10:44am

    No wonder Red Cross workers and other disaster relief agencies are attacked and killed in foreign nations. The US uses these agencies as fronts and human shields, in order to get their spies into countries.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 10:48am

    Re: Re: what next?

    Yes, this. Everyone talks about Orwellian dystopia, but if you want to see the screwed-up world people really should be worried about, read Jennifer Government sometime.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 10:50am

    Re: um, USAID been spooked up a LONG time...

    Yeah, they fucked up polio eradication efforts. You know, isn't impersonating medical staff in a war zone kind of a war crime? Not that it'd be anything new for the CIA.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    icon
    limbodog (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 11:07am

    Re: what next?

    *they know!*

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 12:11pm

    Re:

    That will be part of the rational for making the US Dollar "Not Worth A Continental"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous, Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 3:43pm

    Re: what next?

    And you're posting here?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    icon
    Mark Albertson (profile), Apr 3rd, 2014 @ 4:49pm

    There's more.....

    Some of us in the media have been covering different angles to this story. You might be interested in this article about USAID’s similar work in Iran with Google and an interesting array of private security contractors:

    http://www.examiner.com/article/secret-google-meeting-targeted-internet-freedom-iran

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    nasch (profile), Apr 4th, 2014 @ 1:35pm

    Re: Re: what next?

    That's one of the reasons why people should be hesitant to communicate over unencrypted channels

    Or possibly encrypted channels, given all this RSA kerfuffle.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    icon
    nasch (profile), Apr 4th, 2014 @ 1:36pm

    Re: Re: Re: The First rule is...

    It was my understanding that the vote only took place in Crimea itself and of that population, it was over 90%. However the rest of the Ukraine wasn't asked at all.

    And many people in Crimea opposed to secession (no idea how many) refused to legitimize the vote by participating.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    icon
    nasch (profile), Apr 4th, 2014 @ 1:36pm

    Re: Re: um, USAID been spooked up a LONG time...

    As spy agencies, is there anything they can't screw up and make worse for everyone?

    Puppies?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    icon
    Gwiz (profile), Apr 4th, 2014 @ 2:23pm

    Re: Re: Re: um, USAID been spooked up a LONG time...

    Puppies?


    [tinfoil hat]

    Maybe, but only if you believe those implanted RFID chips are ONLY for finding lost pets.

    [/tinfoil hat]

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Pragmatic, Apr 8th, 2014 @ 8:18am

    Re:

    It'll have to start with changing people's attitudes. As has been pointed out in other threads, we've got a divided society where the Red Team and the Blue Team battle it out for control, but they're both really fronts for our corporate overlords. Keeping both sides afraid of each other prevents them from discussing solutions in a rational environment.

    The solution is to encourage everyone you know to vote for third parties. It's true that just one vote doesn't make much difference, but a few hundred might, particularly if you all vote for the same person/party.

    When we've summoned the courage to kick out the incumbents, there will be change.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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