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So, Why Does the Air Force Want Hundreds of Fake Online Identities on Social Media? [Update]

Bad enough that spammers are creating fake Facebook accounts that acquire connections with unsuspecting people, then inundate them with crap. Now, though, the U.S. military is looking for software and services to manage upwards of 500 fake online personas designed to interact with social media, presumably including such sites as Facebook and Twitter. Last year, the U.S. Air Force created the document, which resides in the federal government's contract database:

Here's the description of the basic service sought:

0001- Online Persona Management Service. 50 User Licenses, 10 Personas per user.
Software will allow 10 personas per user, replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographacilly consistent. Individual applications will enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries. Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms. The service includes a user friendly application environment to maximize the user's situational awareness by displaying real-time local information.
In normal language, the Air Force wants software to create and control fictitious online identities, with up to 50 users controlling as many as 10 identities each. Each identity could use social media sites and other online services, giving the impression of an individual but really being a false face for the military.

As the rest of the contract explains, the Air Force would be able to manipulate IP addresses to make these "individuals" appear to be located in any part of the world. That is explicitly to protect the "identity of government agencies and enterprise organizations," otherwise known as large defense contractors. The system would be used at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa as well as in Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad, Iraq.

In 2005, the U.S. military was involved in a multimillion covert operation to plant propaganda in the Iraqi media. So what could the government do with fake online personalities that could use social media sites and services? A number of things come to mind, including the following:

  • Play a part in antiterrorism activities.
  • Offer an outlet to disseminate propaganda as though it were the opinions of disinterested individuals.
  • Keep tabs on what military personnel do online.
What makes this story more complex is that one of the vendors interested in the contract was HBGary Federal, a division of HBGary allegedly hired by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to attack Chamber critics, as my BNET colleague Alain Sherter writes. Bank of America (BAC) allegedly also hired HBGary Federal to develop plans to attack WikiLeaks, which had rumored to be readying a release of internal BoA documents.

[Update: Slashdot reader AHuxley (musings from a Brave New World?) pointed out an AP investigation showing that the U.S. military spends billions to affect public opinion, both domestic and international, including employing almost as many people in 2009 as the size of the entire State Department for recruitment, advertising, and public relations. There is a long history of government law enforcement and military agencies infiltrating groups that they deemed suspect or dangerous, including the old FBI COINTELPRO program that worked its way into civil rights organizations, among others, from the 1950s through early 70s. And the FBI has also infiltrated mosques more recently.]


Mask Image: morgueFile user clarita. Photo Editing: Erik Sherman.
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