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?