The Null Device
There may be (vast multitudes of) zombies among us online: leaked emails from US defense contractor HB Gary have revealed the existence of a system for managing large numbers of fake identities across social networks; the identities are created en masse with realistic pseudonyms and plausible character profiles and kept on life support with an automated or mostly automated system; the software has them retweet others' posts, or perhaps even uses natural-language processing to have them chime in minimally to comment threads ("I agree!"). Then, when they're needed, these zombie profiles can be pressed into service, flash-mobbing a forum with a dissenting view coming from a large number of real-looking people with authentic-looking histories, befriending real users on social networks for intelligence-gathering purposes, or similar; the operators have access to the record on the particular profile they're using, in order to avoid embarrassing faux pas:
To build this capability we will create a set of personas on twitter, blogs, forums, buzz, and myspace under created names that fit the profile (satellitejockey, hack3rman, etc). These accounts are maintained and updated automatically through RSS feeds, retweets, and linking together social media commenting between platforms. With a pool of these accounts to choose from, once you have a real name persona you create a Facebook and LinkedIn account using the given name, lock those accounts down and link these accounts to a selected # of previously created social media accounts, automatically pre-aging the real accounts.
Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example. There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personasHB Gary has been selling these to the US Government, presumably to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies; its imagined uses could range from allowing agents to infiltrate distributed protest groups for intelligence-gathering purposes to COINTELPRO-style disruption operations and psychological warfare. However, it's not unlikely that some version of this or similar software (either from them or another company) would end up in the hands of private corporations or other interests. Recently, HB Gary and two other defense contractors did recently pitch their services to the Bank of America, proposing disinformation attacks against WikiLeaks and its supporters. It could be argued quite robustly that collusion between the US intelligence establishment and corporations is a long-established tradition, dating back to ITT's involvement in the Chilean coup and the United Fruit Company's involvement in establishing the Guatemalan junta, so to imagine such tools in the hands of, say oil companies or agribusiness, being used to disrupt popular opposition, disrupt the organisation of trade unions, or even manufacture Tea Party-style pseudo-oppositional groups which support deregulation, is not a huge stretch. In the wild, it becomes just another tool to discreetly keep labour and environmental costs down. And then there's what happens when this filters down to the marketing departments. Or some guys in Russia make a clone of this and start selling it to scammers.
What about on the internet? Once the cat's out of the bag, people are going to be less trusting of strangers online. Until now, identifying a sockpuppet had been easy: if someone just joined a site, made no comments or a few content-free comments and then weighed in about why, let's say, smoking doesn't cause cancer or Silvio Berlusconi is the only honest man in Italian politics and the victim of a conspiracy, they were obviously a tentacle of some ham-fisted propaganda operation. Now, such a tentacle may have accounts on all major news sites, social networks and other services going back years, and a history of bland, neutral interactions with the online world. A retweet here, a few holiday photos (cropped/reedited from somebody else's Flickr pool, or a pool of content contributed by contractor employees) there, perhaps a few opinions about football or video games or mobile phones scattered around forums. Detailed conversation would be light, unless the operators pay humans (bound by oaths of secrecy more stringent than Amazon's Mechanical Turk service) to ride these zombies and have them form low-intensity relationships with actual random humans. (More high-intensity relationships could be risky, though given the recent revelations that Britain's secret police agents formed long-term romantic relationships with members of left-wing groups they were infiltrating, perhaps long-distance romances between zombie handlers in fluorescent-lit bunkers under Virginia or Alabama and lonely, emotionally volatile people around the internet could occur; perhaps these could even be exploited for operational uses, in the way Nigerian 419 scammers have done.) But the rest of us would be asking ourselves: what percentage of the people we interact with online—on newspaper forums, music discussion boards, dating sites, or of our Facebook friend circle—are actually real?