If the whole HBGary Federal fiasco wasn’t bad enough, there is more bad news coming out of their leaked emails.
It turns out that one of HBGary’s “products” is sophisticated software to allow public opinion to be manipulated. The software allows a small number of hired employees to impersonate a large number of fictitious citizens who then inundate social media sites.
Are you seeing widespread outrage against some political issue on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media site? That outrage can easily be manufactured and paid for, while appearing to be coming from a grassroots uprising. Have you seen a blog post that reveals something unflattering about some powerful institution, only to see a swarm of commenters show up making ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated accusations against the blogger?
As the HBGary Federal CEO puts it:
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.
The software creates a large number of “personas” who appear to be real people but are really sockpuppets.
This is a well-known propaganda technique called “Bandwagon” that takes advantage of people’s strong need to go along with the crowd. When a politician says something like “The American People are speaking out against healthcare / illegal immigrants / etc.” they are trying to convince you that there is a consensus about some issue and that you should join that consensus.
What is really frightening is that companies like HBGary, Berinco, and Palantir — who are supposed to be computer security firms — are building sophisticated software like this whose sole purpose is to lie to you, to attack opinions their clients don’t like, and distort reality. And even more frightening is that our own government is using the same software.