In an apparent effort to win hearts and minds in unfriendly cyber territory, the US Central Command aka Centcom has plans to launch an army of patriotic sock puppets.
Centcom has awarded a $2.7 million contract to LA based Ntrepid with the aim of creating online "personae" to help get out pro-US spin in the social media sphere. The software will enable a given service operative to work up to 10 sock puppets anywhere in the world. The project would be based out of MacDill Airforce Base in Florida.
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".
Operators looking to avoid detection will likely use tactics such as traffic mixing in order to provide cover and deniability. But no matter how 'authentic' they make it appear, this is a really dumb plan. For one thing it's nothing new and playing the fake ID game doesn't exactly add to your online credibility. Centcom's sock puppet software mirrors a favorite pastime of trolls and geeks with no lives. Kind of ironic since the cyber venture is believed to be part of a program with the high sounding name - Project Earnest Voice.
Aside from the ethics of running a pro-American sock puppet show online do the people behind this really imagine the fake id's won't be unmasked? High tech abilities aside, a sock puppet on an Urdu-speaking site is liable to be viewed with suspicion when its pro-American commentary keeps coming irrespective of back-up "supporting details."
There are a few related concerns.
The project has been likened by web experts to China's attempts to control and restrict free speech on the internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.
As of now Centcom says it has no plans to target English language or US based sites. Of course that could change. The faking of social media profiles for info gathering purposes isn't anything new as the war between HBGary Federal and Anonymous demonstrated.
Link also to: Toronto Star, TG Daily, Digital Journal