Mismanagement plagues US online program against ISIS, say sources

CENTCOM military computersWhistleblowers say mismanagement, amateurism and cronyism are plaguing a multimillion-dollar American psychological operation aimed at countering online propaganda by the Islamic State. The program, known as WebOps, was established by the United States Department of Defense during the administration of US President Barack Obama. Its stated goal is to counter efforts by the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS) to spread propaganda and recruit followers using online social media. Since its creation, it has been administered by the US Central Command’s Information Operations Division. But its implementation has been contracted to Colsa Corporation, a private company based in the US state of Alabama. The company specializes in providing services for US government agencies, some of which include the use of specialized software that utilizes information found on social media.

According to the Associated Press news agency, WebOps staff consists of civilian analysts who speak Arabic. Every day, using fabricated online profiles, they browse social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter looking for pro-ISIS activity to counter. But the news agency said on Tuesday that it spoke to several people with knowledge of the program, who claim that it is plagued by incompetence, mismanagement and cronyism. They allege that analysts involved in WebOps have limited experience in counter-propaganda, incomplete understanding of Islam, and little more than a basic command of Arabic. Consequently, they have been known to make crucial errors when posting messages online. The latter end up amusing their readers instead of countering ISIS propaganda. In one case, a WebOps analyst confused the Arabic word for “authority” (as in Palestinian Authority) with the similarly sounding word “salad”, thus ending up with “Palestinian salad” instead of “Palestinian Authority”. Rather than managing to counter ISIS propaganda, the message was ridiculed on social media.

The report also cited “four current or former workers” who claimed that they personally witnessed “data being manipulated” to make the WebOps program seem more successful than it has been. They also claim that the program’s administrators have purposely resisted efforts by the Department of Defense to exercise independent oversight of the program’s performance. The Associated Press said it contacted US Central Command, the Pentagon outfit that is responsible for WebOps, on January 10. But it said that no response has been received from anyone there.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2017 | Permalink

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Israeli military says Hamas lured its soldiers using online profiles of women

Cellular telephoneThe Israel Defense Forces told a press conference on Wednesday that hackers belonging to the Palestinian militant group Hamas lured Israeli soldiers by posing as young women online. Wednesday’s press conference was led by an IDF spokesman who requested to remain anonymous, as is often the case with the Israeli military. He told reporters that the hackers used carefully crafted online profiles of real Israeli women, whose personal details and photographs were expropriated from their publicly available social media profiles. The hackers then made contact with members of the IDF and struck conversations with them that in many cases became intimate over time. At various times in the process, the hackers would send the Israeli soldiers photographs of the women, which were copied from the women’s online public profiles.

The anonymous IDF spokesman said that, if the soldiers continued to show interest, they were eventually asked by the hackers posing as women to download an application on their mobile telephones that would allow them to converse using video. Once the soldiers downloaded the application, the ‘women’ would find excuses to delay using the application, or the relationships would abruptly end. But the soldiers would leave the application on their telephones. It would then be used by the Hamas hackers to take control of the camera and microphones on the soldiers’ mobile devices. According to the IDF spokesman, dozens of Israeli soldiers were lured by the Hamas scam. No precise number was given.

Media reports suggest that the Hamas hackers were primarily interested in finding out information about IDF maneuvers around the Gaza Strip, the narrow plot of densely inhabited territory that is controlled by the Palestinian militant group. They were also interested in collecting information about the size and weaponry of the Israeli forces around Gaza. Media representatives were told on Wednesday that the operation “had potential for great damage”. But the IDF claims that the harm to its operations was “minimal”, because it primarily targeted low-ranking soldiers. Consequently, according to the Israeli military, the hackers were not able to acquire highly sensitive information.

In 2009, dozens of members of Sweden’s armed forces serving with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan were found to have been approached via Facebook, and asked to provide details on NATO’s military presence in the country. The Afghan Taliban are believed to have carried out the operation.

Hamas has not commented on the allegations by the IDF.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 January 2017 | Permalink

South Korea’s ex-spy chief jailed for interfering in elections

Won Sei-hoonBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
The former director of South Korea’s intelligence agency has been jailed for directing intelligence officers to post online criticisms of liberal politicians during a recent presidential election campaign. Won Sei-hoon headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) from 2008 to 2013, during the administration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak. Since his replacement in the leadership of NIS, Won has faced charges of having ordered a group of NIS officers to “flood the Internet” with messages accusing liberal political candidates of being “North Korean sympathizers”.

Prosecutors alleged that Won initiated the Internet-based psychological operation because he was convinced that “leftist adherents of North Korea” were on their way to “regaining power” in the South. The illegal operation took place during the 2012 presidential election campaign, which was principally fought by Moon Jae-in, of the liberal-left Democratic Party, and Park Geun-hye, of the conservative Saenuri party. Park eventually won the election and is currently serving South Korea’s eleventh President. The court heard that a secret team of NIS officers had posted nearly 1.5 million messages on social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, in an effort to garner support for the Saenuri party candidate in the election.

Last September, a court in Seoul had sentenced Won to two and a half years in prison, which was much shorter than the maximum five-year penalty he was facing if found guilty. But the judge had suspended the sentence, arguing that there was no direct proof that Won directly sought to alter the outcome of the presidential election. On Monday, however, the Seoul High Court overruled the earlier decision, saying that Won had directly breached election laws and that the violation was sufficient for a prison sentence. In reading out its decision, the judge said that “direct interference [by the NIS] with the free expression of ideas by the people with the aim of creating a certain public opinion cannot be tolerated under any pretext”. Won was transferred directly from the court to prison, where he will serve his sentence.

South Korean court convicts ex-spy director of interfering in elections

Won Sei-hoonBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
A former director of South Korea’s intelligence agency has been convicted in court of directing intelligence officers to post online criticisms of liberal politicians during a presidential election campaign. Won Sei-hoon headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) from 2008 to 2013, during the administration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak. Since his replacement in the leadership of NIS, Won has faced charges of having ordered a group of NIS officers to “flood the Internet” with messages accusing liberal political candidates of being “North Korean sympathizers”. Prosecutors alleged that Won initiated the Internet-based psychological operation because he was convinced that “leftist adherents of North Korea” were on their way to “regaining power” in the South. The illegal operation took place during the 2012 presidential election campaign, which was principally fought by Moon Jae-in, of the liberal-left Democratic Party, and Park Geun-hye, of the conservative Saenuri party. Park eventually won the election and is currently serving South Korea’s eleventh President. The court heard that a secret team of NIS officers had posted nearly 1.5 million messages on social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, in an effort to garner support for the Saenuri party candidate in the election. On Thursday, a court in Seoul sentenced Won to two and a half years in prison, which was much shorter than the maximum five-year penalty he was facing if found guilty. In reading out its decision, the court said on Thursday that “direct interference [by the NIS] with the free expression of ideas by the people with the aim of creating a certain public opinion cannot be tolerated under any pretext”. The new jail conviction comes right after the defendant completed a 14-month sentence stemming from charges of accepting bribes in return for helping a private company acquire government contracts. Read more of this post

US created fake social network firm to foster dissent in Cuba

Cell phone user in CubaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A United States government agency secretly created a bogus social networking platform in order to foment political unrest in Cuba, according to a report by the Associated Press. Over 40,000 subscribers regularly used the ZunZuneo social networking service that began operating in the communist Caribbean island in 2009. The service, dubbed “Cuba’s Twitter” was based on SMS messages sent via mobile telephone subscribers. Its rapid success was attributed to the strict controls over Internet usage that are in place in Cuba, as well as the population’s relative lack of access to networked computers. But The Associated Press revealed on Thursday that ZunZuneo was in fact a secret program devised by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is a federal body operating under the Department of State. The news agency reported that the US government was able to conceal its role in building and sustaining the network by operating through a complex system of front companies set up in the Cayman Islands and in Spain. The latter were used to register ZunZuneo’s parent company and to pay the company’s bills, as well as to route millions of subscribers’ text messages without the involvement of servers based on US soil. The report stated that ZunZuneo’s corporate website even carried “bogus advertisements” strategically placed to give the site a realistic corporate look. It is worth noting that the social networking service suddenly stopped working in 2012, without providing a warning or an explanation to its tens of thousands of subscribers. But the Associated Press said the reason the service was terminated was that the US taxpayer’s money used to sustain the program simply run out. The news agency argued in its report that the program was covert in nature and should have been subjected to Presidential authorization and Congressional scrutiny. Read more of this post

Announcement: Conference on social media and intelligence

Social networkingBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
During the past four years, this blog has reported several incidents pointing to the increasing frequency with which spy agencies of various countries are utilizing social networking media as sources of tactical intelligence. But are we at a point where we can speak of a trend? In other words, is the rapid rise of social networking creating the conditions for the emergence of a new domain in tactical intelligence collection? Some experts now contend that the growth of social networking has given rise to a new form of intelligence-gathering: social media intelligence (SOCMINT). There are even some who believe SOCMINT should become a separate entity altogether in the intelligence process. On March 7, 2014, the Netherlands Intelligence Studies Association (NISA) will be holding a one-day conference in Amsterdam, to discuss this new phenomenon and consider some of the practical, ethical and political dilemmas involved in SOCMINT. The conference will open with a keynote speech by Sir David Omand, former director of Britain’s’ signals intelligence agency, the GCHQ, who currently teaches at the War Studies Department at King’s College, London. Other speakers come from intelligence and security services in Holland and Belgium, as well as from a variety of academic centers and non-governmental organizations in Europe and the United States. Longtime readers of this website will be familiar with NISA. The group was founded in 1991 with a mission to help focus and streamline academic work on intelligence, security and law enforcement. Read more of this post

Belgian intelligence employees ‘outed themselves’ on LinkedIn

LinkedIn logoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Several alleged employees of Belgian security and intelligence agencies have revealed their identities on social networking sites, it has been reported. Belgian newspaper De Standaard, which made the revelation in a leading article on Tuesday, said that many LinkedIn and Facebook users appear to list their employer as Belgium’s State Security Agency (Sûreté de l’État or SE/SV) or the Coordinating Body for Threat Analysis (OCAM/OCAD). The SE is Belgium’s foremost civilian intelligence agency, operating under the country’s Ministry of Justice. OCAM is one of Belgium’s several anti-terrorist intelligence collection and analysis agencies, which operates under the joint supervision of the Justice and Interior Ministries. De Standaard contacted the two agencies, which refused to comment on whether the social networking profiles are authentic. But the paper spoke with an unnamed Belgian senior intelligence official, who said that this was potentially a very serious issue for Belgian national security. “Russian and Chinese intelligence services employ thousands of people”, said the official, “and have the resources and time to manually search for such profiles and then exploit the information they provide. Our people could, by their very presence on such sites, become the target of hostilities”. De Standaard also spoke to Belgian Senator Dirk Claes, who is a member of the country’s Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence. He told the paper that his colleagues in the Committee would be up in arms if the profiles turned out to be authentic. “These individuals have security clearances and are obligated to stay in the background, as much as possible. I will be raising this issue in the [Intelligence] Committee”, Claes told De Standaard. Read more of this post