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.

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