Destroying Reputations And Hacking Elections For Fun And Profit

from the coming-to-a-presidential-candidate-near-you dept

Although rather forgotten now, one of the most troubling Snowden revelations appeared in 2014, and concerned GCHQ's "dirty tricks" group known as JTRIG -- the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group. Put simply, its job is to "manipulate, deceive and destroy" reputations. Of course, it would be naïve to think that GCHQ is alone in using these techniques. We can safely assume all the major spy agencies engage in similar activities, but what about other players? To what extent might ambitious politicians, for example, be using these dirty tricks to slime their opponents -- and to win elections unfairly?

If a long and fascinating feature in Bloomberg is to be believed, the outcome of presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela were all influenced and possibly even determined by the work of one man, a certain Andrés Sepúlveda, using similar methods to those employed by JTRIG. It's a great story, and well-worth reading in full. What follows are some of the details that are likely to be of particular interest to Techdirt readers.

Sepúlveda began on a modest scale:

For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense.
Eventually, he hit the big time. For $600,000 Sepúlveda is alleged to have helped elect Peña Nieto as the Mexican President in 2012:
He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory.
His team varied from seven to 15 people, and came from all over Latin America:
Brazilians, in his view, develop the best malware. Venezuelans and Ecuadoreans are superb at scanning systems and software for vulnerabilities. Argentines are mobile intercept artists. Mexicans are masterly hackers in general but talk too much. Sepúlveda used them only in emergencies.
Money was no problem:
At one point, Sepúlveda spent $50,000 on high-end Russian software that made quick work of tapping Apple, BlackBerry, and Android phones. He also splurged on the very best fake Twitter profiles; they’d been maintained for at least a year, giving them a patina of believability.
But in many ways, Sepúlveda's most powerful tool was not digital technology, but his understanding of how digital technology had re-shaped the political landscape:
His insight was to understand that voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. He knew that accounts could be faked and social media trends fabricated, all relatively cheaply. He wrote a software program, now called Social Media Predator, to manage and direct a virtual army of fake Twitter accounts. The software let him quickly change names, profile pictures, and biographies to fit any need. Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard -- or, as he puts it, "When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything."
Of course, that's true not just for Latin America, but pretty much everywhere else too. Which inevitably raises the following:
On the question of whether the U.S. presidential campaign is being tampered with, he is unequivocal. "I’m 100 percent sure it is," he says.
Sepúlveda has no reason to lie. After all, he's not looking for work anymore:
He's serving 10 years in prison for charges including use of malicious software, conspiracy to commit crime, violation of personal data, and espionage, related to hacking during Colombia's 2014 presidential election.
So the issue is probaby not so much whether dirty tricks of the kind described above are being deployed against US presidential candidates, but rather: by whom, to what end, and with what effect?

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  • identicon
    anonymous Dutch coward, 6 Apr 2016 @ 2:10pm

    trump

    OMG! Trump doesn't exist. He is just some sort of Bolivian malware!

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

  • identicon
    NSA, 6 Apr 2016 @ 2:22pm

    "by whom, to what end, and with what effect?"
    [Smiles]

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2016 @ 2:46pm

    Propaganda has always been around and always will be. Did anyone honestly expect digital technology would change this?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2016 @ 6:16pm

      Re:

      In my experience, although most people could probably identify propaganda on a test, they nearly completely fail to recognize how constantly they're exposed to it and even less likely to appreciate how effective it has been in persuading them to hold beliefs that are not in their own best interests.

      To me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of propaganda. Even though it's usually lame and obvious, it's still remarkably effective. I keep asking myself, Who couldn't see through this? But still, so many don't.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2016 @ 2:55pm

    damn you techdirt
    why did you have to pop the last bubble of innocence that i had left
    why

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2016 @ 3:14pm

    I think many are paying more attention to this type of stuff. It'll be interesting if / when it's revealed.

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

  • icon
    KissMyWookiee (profile), 6 Apr 2016 @ 3:15pm

    The Whore of Babylon...

    Considering the crimes committed by the Clintons and the number of unusual deaths that have surrounded them, you can bet that Hillary is using such tactics.

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

  • identicon
    Dave, 6 Apr 2016 @ 4:02pm

    Ender's Game

    Makes me think of Valentine and Peter manipulating the nets in just this way. For 1985 that was brilliantly insightful.

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

  • icon
    frank87 (profile), 6 Apr 2016 @ 4:19pm

    Are you sure there are normal people left on twitter? I mean people not trying to manipulate the media?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2016 @ 5:59pm

    Reddit is a safe haven for shills. They even ban people for pointing out that obvious shills, are obvious shills.

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

  • identicon
    Rich Kulawiec, 6 Apr 2016 @ 8:38pm

    The key number in all of this...

    ...is $600K. Please pause for a moment to read this 2004 essay by Bruce Schneier: Stealing an Election

    Now consider carefully: Schneier provided a low-end estimate of the budget available to election attackers ($100M) IN 2004.

    Imagine what that budget would be today, 12 years later.

    Now look at what Sepulveda did with .5% of that and start extrapolating.

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

  • identicon
    PrivateFrazer, 7 Apr 2016 @ 12:46am

    Well i reckon they're trying to make Trump look bad

    ..what do you mean they're not??

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

    • identicon
      David, 7 Apr 2016 @ 3:30am

      Re: Well i reckon they're trying to make Trump look bad

      Trump needs no help with looking bad: he manages that perfectly well on his own.

      The trick is still leading the primaries.

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

  • identicon
    Lisboeta, 7 Apr 2016 @ 7:09am

    Plus ça change...

    So people twigged that the MSM was thinly-veiled propaganda, stopped believing it, and looked elsewhere for news sources? And, having found Internet alternatives, assumed the output therefrom would be truthful? The preferred sources may've changed -- but the gullibility of the readers has not!

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


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