A new document released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden shows that the British Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) has developed an extraordinary array of tools, not only for internet surveillance, but also for the purpose of promoting propaganda and manipulating social media.
The document, released to British newspaper, The Intercept, shows that the secretive spy agency — the British equivalent of the NSA — has in its possession tools created by GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) to manipulate the results of online polls, artificially inflate page view counts on web sites, “amplify” sanctioned messages on YouTube (or censor video content judged to be “extremist”), and even seed the internet with false information. JTRIG also has ability to find photos of specific targets on Facebook that are not available to the public.
The document—available here—is a Wikipedia-style page from 2012 designed to inform other GCHQ units of JTRIG’s “weaponised capability” in the area of internet technology. The document describes not only the run-of-the-mill tools used to create mayhem online by average hackers (“distributed denial of service” attacks and “call bombing”), but in a disturbing insight into the capabilities of the British government, also reveals tools that could be used to manipulate political discourse and public opinion — and even to disseminate state-approved propaganda.
JTRIG describes some of the tactics as “in development” but says most are “fully operational.” The document brags, “Don’t treat this like a catalogue. If you don’t see it here, it doesn’t mean we can’t build it.” Some of the capabilities described by JTRIG in the document, along with their code names are listed below:
• “Change outcome of online polls” (UNDERPASS)
• “Mass delivery of email messaging to support an Information Operations campaign” (BADGER)
• “Mass delivery of SMS messages to support an Information Operations campaign” (WARPARTH)
• “Disruption of video-based websites hosting extremist content through concerted target discovery”
• “Content removal” (SILVERLORD)
• “Find private photographs of targets on Facebook” (SPRING BISHOP)
• “A tool that will permanently disable a target’s account on their computer” (ANGRY PIRATE)
• “Ability to artificially increase traffic to a website” (GATEWAY)
• “Ability to inflate page views on websites” (SLIPSTREAM)
• “Amplification of a given message, normally video, on popular multimedia websites (Youtube)” (GESTATOR)
• “Targeted Denial Of Service against Web Servers” (PREDATORS FACE)
• “Distributed denial of service using P2P. Built by ICTR, deployed by JTRIG” (ROLLING THUNDER)
• “A suite of tools for monitoring target use of the UK auction site eBay (www.ebay.co.uk)” (ELATE)
• “Ability to spoof any email address and send email under that identity” (CHANGELING)
• “For connecting two target phone together in a call” (IMPERIAL BARGE)
The new Snowden document also reveals that the agency has the ability to monitor Skype conversations in real time:
• “Active skype capability. Provision of real time call records (SkypeOut and SkypetoSkype) and bidirectional instant messaging. Also contact lists.” (MINIATURE HERO)
This raises questions about Microsoft’s cooperation with spy agencies or possible security vulnerabilities with the program. Microsoft uses advanced encryption for Skype and the company claims it “only respond[s] to legal government demands” and only complies with “orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers.” The document does note that though it is fully operational, there may be some “usage restrictions” for the Skype tool.
The Snowden document does not reveal whether all of the programs were used or how often. It does note that “there can be some reasons our tools won’t work for operational reasons” and adds that “there may also be some legal restrictions” on using the tools.
The release comes as the British parliament is considering an emergency surveillance law that would require telecom companies to retain customer data for a year. The companies had been required to retain data for 12 months under a 2006 European Union directive but the policy was thrown out in April by the European Court of Justice on the grounds that it violated human rights.
Prime Minister David Cameron has championed the surveillance legislation, saying the government’s powers must not be compromised at a time of growing concern over Brits traveling to Iraq and Syria to join militant Islamist groups. Privacy advocates have objected to the legislation, saying it is moving too quickly and without enough public debate about privacy and human rights.