A British spy agency known as GCHQ is sort of a spy agency for hackers in the British government. Their job is secretive, of course, but they’re generally known to be working online gathering information in various forms. Whistleblower Edward Snowden, however, has put a bit of rain on the GCHQ’s secret parade with document releases that showcase some of what the spy agency may be doing.
According to the papers release recently, GCHQ actively manipulates online polls, artificially inflates pageviews to make certain pages more popular, amplifies YouTube and other content to increase visibility in search, and censors or hacks videos and other content they find “extremist.”
Several tools purportedly used by the GCHQ were outlined by Snowden’s document release and said to be made by the Joint Threat Research intelligence Group within the GCHQ. They use “fake victim blog posts,” “false flag operations,” psychological manipulation, and “honey traps” to target activists online and monitor sites like WikiLeaks. They even, according to Snowden’s releases, spy on YouTube and Facebook users they consider “of interest.”
Many of the things outlined as being within the capability of the GCHQ and JTRIG are pretty nefarious and even downright unsettling. These tools, if they exist, could literally make or break just about any online entity, be it a large government agency or a well-organized grassroots uprising of protest. Tools range from disrupting video content to permanently deleting Facebook and computer accounts are listed. This, along with the ability to artificially promote chosen websites or page content, spoof email addresses to send mass emails or SMS messages, and more all point to serious disruption and possible rights violations should they be used against legitimate protesters and activists, as Snowden’s documents seem to indicate they may have been.
This raises some serious questions about what, exactly, governments are doing with the Internet and should cause alarm for anyone who believes in a free and open world of communication online and off.