Russia’s Military Alliance Tackles Cyber Crime

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

Cyber crime topped the agenda at the recent meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Moscow’s proto-collective security alliance.  That would be great news if it meant that Russia and its allies were about to mount a campaign against real online criminals.  Regrettably, the new effort appears to be consistent with previous CSTO initiatives, also taking aim at political opponents of the member governments.

The CSTO was formed in 2002, building upon the 1992 Collective Security Treaty.  In addition to Russia, the CSTO is composed of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  Uzbekistan quit the alliance last June.

At the October 24 Moscow meeting, CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha declared, “Cyber crime—this is a new problem that all governments are facing.  We are working on practical activities to ensure information security within the CSTO.”  As a concrete example of the alliance’s efforts, Bordyuzha mentioned Operation Proxy, which is conducted by the intelligence organizations of the member states.

Operation Proxy, according to Bordyuzha, is aimed at drug dealers and terrorists and also at extremists and political provocateurs.  The latter two categories, according to the Secretary General, “disseminate information that causes political damage to state and allied interests.”  As a result of the joint action on the six national segments of the Internet, 2,000 suspect websites were identified.  Operation Proxy will continue on a regular basis.

Furthermore, Bordyuzha continued, the CSTO sponsors the Center for Modern Technology at Moscow State University.  The Center’s mission is to train information security specialists.

Commenting on the CSTO developments, Sergei Mironov, leader of the A Just Russia Party and former Chairman of the Federation Council, commented, “Russia more than once in recent years has become the object of such dishonest information attacks.  Their goal was not only to discredit our country, but to weaken it in achieving some of its political or economic goals. Therefore, information security is an important part of maintaining the defense capabilities of our country and its allies.”

This most recent CSTO initiative appears to be in line with earlier international efforts led by Moscow.  In the United Nations General Assembly, for example, Russia proposed a warmed-over version of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of International Information Security.   The thrust of the agreement is to outlaw the broadcast by mass media or across the Internet of any information that could “distort the perception of the political system, social order, domestic and foreign policy, important political and social processes in the state [or] spiritual, moral and cultural values of its citizens.”  Moreover, each year since 1998, Russia has introduced a resolution at the UN calling for an international agreement to combat what it calls “information terrorism.”

To illustrate the Russian approach, at a 2008 UN-sponsored conference, Sergei Korotkov of the Russian Defense Ministry argued that any time a government promotes ideas on the Internet with the goal of subverting another country’s government—even in the name of democratic reform—it should qualify as “aggression.” And that, in turn, would make it illegal under the prospective treaty.

This is a very different view of the Internet than the one to which most of us are accustomed.  Russia’s international forays, most recently with the CSTO, underscore that Moscow is not alone in this respect.  As the US delegation leaves for Dubai to attend the December 3-14 World Conference on International Telecommunications, it must prepare itself to fend off attempts by Russia and others to define Internet Freedom as cyber crime or cyber terrorism.

Witch Hunt or Reality: Illegal High-Tech Exports to Russia

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

On October 3, the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York unsealed an indictment against Alexander Fishenko and ten others alleging illegal export of high-tech microelectronics to Russian military and intelligence organizations.  It was a stark reminder that Moscow is out to steal American technology by whatever means possible—human, cyber or good old-fashioned theft.

“The microelectronics shipped to Russia,” says an FBI press release, “included analog-to-digital converters, static random access memory chips, microcontrollers, and microprocessors. These commodities have applications and are frequently used in a wide range of military systems, including radar and surveillance systems, missile guidance systems, and detonation triggers. Russia does not produce many of these sophisticated goods domestically.”

Russian media sources helpfully add that the imported electronic components could be installed on Russian anti-ship missiles and the MiG-35 multirole fighter, now under development.

From 2002 to 2012, the FBI alleges, Fishenko’s Houston-based Arc Electronics Inc. exported $50 million of such goods to Russia.

American authorities were able to arrest only eight of the defendants, the remaining three having fled the country.  All eleven are employees of Arc Electronics, which Fishenko owns with his wife, Viktoria Klebanova, also among the defendants.  Fishenko also owns Moscow-based Apex System LLC, a certified supplier of military equipment to the Russian government.  Fishenko and Klebanova are naturalized US citizens who hold dual Russian citizenship.

According to Aleksandr Zakharov, Russian Consul General in Houston, in addition to Fishenko and Klebanova, one other defendant holds dual US-Russian citizenship.  Another is a Russian citizen and the others are citizens of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

The defendants are charged with violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Arms Export Control Act, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.  Fishenko is additionally charged with money laundering and acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

Another interesting detail supplied by the Russian press is that although US authorities say that Fishenko denied having served in the Soviet military, he in fact served in Soviet military intelligence in Berlin in the 1980s.

Naturally, Russia denies the American charges.  Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry, said that none of the defendants is involved in the supply of classified microelectronics for the Russian military-industrial complex.  “I have only one explanation regarding this,” said Rogozin, “the Americans have finally realized that everything we do in the frame of the arms program is very serious.  Once this was understood, it bothered the Americans, so they began a witch hunt.”

Far from hunting witches, this case suggests that America may be too relaxed.  According to the FBI press release, Arc Electronics was able to acquire the sensitive equipment by falsifying end-use and export documents, posing as a manufacturer of traffic signals and getting Apex System, Fishenko’s Moscow-based company, to remove pictures of military equipment from its website.

This episode affords a good opportunity to recall the reality underscored in an October 2011 report of the US National Counterintelligence Executive:

“Motivated by Russia’s high dependence on natural resources, the need to diversify its economy, and the belief that the global economic system is tilted toward US and other Western interests at the expense of Russia, Moscow’s highly capable intelligence services are using HUMINT, cyber, and other operations to collect economic information and technology to support Russia’s economic development and security.”

Cyber Personnel Wanted: Apply to the Russian MoD

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

The Russian Ministry of Defense appears to be openly recruiting cyber experts for both defensive and offensive roles.  It is yet unclear whether this indicates resolution of a cyber turf battle among Russian government agencies, particularly between the MoD and the Federal Security Service, the FSB.

On October 7, the Russian MoD announced a tender for research in the field of information security.  The competition is open to postgraduate students, research, innovation and manufacturing teams, as well as other citizens of the Russian Federation “with the potential and internal motivation to solve large-scale scientific and engineering problems for the benefit of the Russian armed forces.”

Among the subjects of interest mentioned in the announcement are “methods and means of bypassing anti-virus software and firewalls and protection of networks and operating systems.”

Valery Yashchenko, Deputy Director of the Moscow State University Institute of Information Security, told Kommersant newspaper, “This would be elements of cyber weaponry… they can be used for both defensive and offensive purposes.”

An unnamed source in the Russian military told Kommersant, “With the current size of the armed forces we cannot do without the use of high-tech.  This will increase the effectiveness of the troops as well as implement tasks that previously required considerable resources.”  The same source also noted that the Russian Defense Ministry began actively to pursue the matter in January, after Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov announced the necessity of readiness for cyber war.  Since then, the source continued, the General Staff’s Scientific and Technical Council meets regularly with General Staff specialized units—Radio-Electronic Warfare Forces and the 8th Directorate, responsible for encryption.

This revelation is all the more interesting in light of research presented at the 2011 NATO CyCon in Tallinn by Keir Giles of the Oxford Conflict Studies Research Centre.  At the time, Giles presented indications that a Russian military cyber capability may have been growing in the Radio Electronic Troops.

In the same paper, Giles also presented indications that the Russian military’s interest in information warfare was creating friction with the FSB.  Back then, the MoD frequently mentioned the phrase “infrastructure protection,” sometimes neglecting to place the adjective “military” before it.  This intra-governmental squabble may account for the apparent lack of follow-up to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s March 21 statement that Russia was considering a cyber security command.

However, in September, the Security Council of the Russian Federation released a document assigning critical infrastructure protection to the FSB.  If that move also resolved the internecine dispute and cleared the way for at least some MoD involvement in cyber offense, we may soon learn of a military cyber command or other cyber-related administrative developments.  Otherwise, expect to see articles from FSB officials and persons close to the FSB challenging the MoD’s latest move.

FSB Set to Parry Cyber Attacks on Russian Critical Infrastructure

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

As Americans debate how to protect critical infrastructure from cyber attacks, Russia has—on paper at least—moved to protect its strategic assets.  The Security Council of the Russian Federation has released a document aimed at creation of a unified government system to detect, warn against and prevent cyber attacks.  Unlike America, in Russia there is little debate about who will be in charge—the FSB, of course.

The Security Council document takes a step toward implementation of the National Security Strategy of Russia until 2020, which calls for IT infrastructure improvements.  In particular, the document calls for protection of the industrial control systems of strategically important facilities—roughly what we would call critical infrastructure.  These are defined as assets whose malfunction could negatively affect a region’s or the country’s economy.  Interestingly, there is no public mention of national security or loss of life in this definition.

The plan is to be implemented in three phases: 2012 to 2013, 2014 to 2016 and 2017 to 2020. The first phase involves development of an action plan.  During the second phase, the Russian state should develop legal regulations, specific organizational responsibilities and the means to “liquidate” cyber incidents.  (To “liquidate”—a commonly used word in Russian—could involve just about any kind of cyber measures.)  The plan for the second phase also calls for establishment of a unified government situation center for detection and prevention of cyber attacks on critical information infrastructure. This center sounds like some kind of a national CERT. The third stage, among other things, involves integration of security systems at the strategically important facilities.

Many Russian experts are skeptical.  Consultant Mikhail Emelyannikov, for example, told Russian IT Review, “It is unclear how technological independence from other countries in terms of automated control system security will be maintained when most of them are produced abroad.”

It is almost certainly not a coincidence that, a few days after the Security Council document was released, Kaspersky Lab posted job vacancies for personnel with SCADA experience.  The posting says that Kaspersky Lab is developing a new secure operating system.  “The vacancies,” writes Russian IT Review, “are perhaps the first testimony to the Lab’s intentions to enter the industrial IT system market.”  By the way, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been expressing security concerns over foreign-produced hardware and software since he took office in 2000 and the matter is addressed in the 2000 Information Security Doctrine.

Emelyannikov also wonders why the Security Council document makes no mention of the Russian Federal Service for Technical and Export Control (FSTEC).  “All the features of the program are assigned to the FSB…Meanwhile, the implementation of the policy guidelines requires a large number of regulations, some of which, in accordance with the current documents, are in the competency of the Federal Technical Committee.”

Apparently, just two months into his third term as Russia’s president, Putin is acting on matters that have concerned him for over a decade.  The Security Council has identified cyber attacks against critical infrastructure as a national security threat—and the FSB is Russia’s security service.

On Sausages and Cyber Security Laws

By David J. Smith

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

“As Congress recesses for the national election,” Government Security News (GSN) reports, “the White House is close to issuing an Executive Order (EO) on cyber security in the coming days.”  The EO is meant as at least partial compensation for Congress’s failure to pass cyber security legislation last August.  Despite a standoff between Congressional factions with very different approaches to cyber security, just about everyone agrees that some kind of legislation is needed.  The frustration is understandable, but is an EO at this moment a good idea?

Writing on CSO Online, Taylor Amerding offers a good overview of the arguments that various observers are making for and against the EO.  Most of them are just restatements of positions on the content of the dueling bills that foundered in Congress two months ago.  There is not much point in rehashing shopworn arguments.  Moreover, we do not know exactly what will be in the EO.

Reports based on leaks say that the draft document will order executive departments to develop within 90 days a voluntary set of cyber security standards for private companies that operate critical infrastructure.  Reports also suggest that the EO will establish a Cyber Security Council to be chaired by DHS.  Both measures were featured in the revised Lieberman-Collins Cyber Security Act, a compromise attempt that failed to garner sufficient support in the Senate last August.  However, an internal Administration debate on the EO’s content may still be underway.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a September 19 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, that the EO “is close to completion, depending on a few issues that need to be resolved at the highest levels.”  Another indication that the content of the EO may still be up for grabs is a September 24 letter from Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) to President Barack Obama.  Therein, Lieberman urges Obama “to explore any means at your disposal that would encourage regulators to make mandatory the standards developed by the Department of Homeland Security pursuant to your Executive Order.”

We just do not know enough to discuss the EO’s content.  However, one discussion category that Amerding mentions demands our attention now: “The President should not circumvent Congress on a matter of this importance.”

Lieberman encourages the President to proceed with an EO, stressing the danger of inaction.  “The danger is real and imminent,” the Senator’s letter says, “yet we have not acted to defend against it.”  That is true; however, an EO will not change much in the imminent future—the executive departments may even be given 90 days to make recommendations.  That would take us just about to Presidential Inauguration Day.  Moreover, Administration officials admit that an EO cannot do all that needs to be done.  For example, they point out that the President lacks the legal authority to grant legal protection to companies that choose to share cyber threat information with one another and with the government.

That alone means that the matter must again be faced early in the next Congress.  Despite repeated Administration assertions that legislation will still be needed, issuing an EO in October could create the appearance—or the excuse—that cyber security is not so urgent early in 2013.

Moreover, attempts to add tougher provisions to an EO now may only heighten suspicions for the Congressional debate later.

Most importantly, AlienVault CTO Roger Thornton told CSO Online, “A mandate backed by Congress and the President would probably be more effective at convincing the private sector.”  Particularly when our nation faces a new and patchily understood matter like cyber security, the legislative process serves a purpose.  It may be a long process, frustrating and even painful, but in the end it is more likely to forge needed consensus than any other approach.

Although the attribution is probably apocryphal, Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

Troubling Connections: Wikileaks, Moscow, Quito…Tehran?

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

As a dwindling crowd of Julian Assange supporters stood “vigil,” as the Wikileaks leader puts it, August 25 outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Margarita Simonian, Editor-in-Chief of RT, slipped into the building.  RT, formerly Russia Today, is a television network that broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic for, according to its website, “viewers wishing to question more.”  RT is owned by RIA/Novosti, the Russian government’s information and news service.  A quick glance at RT’s website affords a pretty full picture of what it is.

On RT’s welcome page is a banner promoting the Julian Assange Show, one of the station’s marquis programs.  A zippy 30-second mostly anti-American collage opens each episode.  To grasp the show’s tenor, try episode 1, an interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, or episode 8, a discussion of the “militarization” of personal communications.  RT broadcast 12 episodes last spring.

After visiting Assange, Simonian assured the program’s fans, “We concluded that when all that is over, and I hope it ends soon, we will certainly resume cooperation with Assange.”  By “all that,” Simonian meant that Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy, surrounded by British police intent on extraditing him to Sweden on suspicion of rape.

Significant as it was, Simonian’s announcement was overshadowed by the lingering effect of Assange’s August 19 embassy balcony speech.  Assange asked if the United States will “return to and reaffirm the values it was founded upon?  Or will it lurch off the precipice, dragging us all into a dangerous and oppressive world?”

He thanked Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa for granting him political asylum and a host of Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, for their support.  And he thanked people in the US, UK, Sweden and Australia for supporting him despite the positions of their governments.

What is really going on?  On the surface, Assange seems a bright fellow who wraps his Internet pranks in vaguely leftist, anarchist and globalist rhetoric.  Even supporters who have grown weary of Assange’s personal shortcomings still exalt Wikileaks in terms such as a “stateless news organization…worth defending.”  Without all that, Assange would have been on a flight to Stockholm long ago.  However, peel away another layer of this onion.

Political asylum from Ecuador?  Correa is not known for press freedom or human rights, but he is known as the latest Latin American leader to vie for the mantle of the aged Fidel Castro and the ailing Hugo Chavez.  Indeed, a number of Ecuadorian journalists have sought political asylum in other countries.  In Ecuador, Correa will run for re-election in February.  At home and abroad, picking a (long distance) anti-imperialist fight with Britain is a good move.

And RT was there for Correa too.  RT interviewer: “By standing up for Julian Assange, the country is exposing itself to risk…What consequences might Ecuador face after granting asylum to Julian Assange?”  Correa:Normally, such a decision shouldn’t have any consequences, that is, if all countries respect international law…But unfortunately, in this particular case, we see that some countries are displaying their colonial and imperial ambitions, their ethnocentricity.”  Correa: “Have you felt like there was censorship [in Ecuador]?  RT: “Of course, not.”

Peeling back another onion layer, this story turns to serious geopolitics.  “Documents obtained by the Sunday Telegraph in Quito,” writes Philip Sherwell, “reveal that detailed plans have been drawn up to establish substantial banking mechanisms between [Ecuador and Iran]”  Why?  “To dodge the Western-backed sanctions” on Iran.

“Correa wants to position himself as representative of the radical left on the global stage,” Ecuadorian opposition leader Cesar Montufar told the Telegraph.  “The Assange case fits with that strategy.  And so does his approach to Iran.”

And Russia maintains extensive and important ties to Iran, parrying Western measures against the Islamic Republic at every opportunity.

The connections are, to say the least, troubling.

Russian Politics Moves Online: The Empire Strikes Back

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

Russia’s State Investigative Committee has charged anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny with embezzlement, adding politically motivated bloggers to the categories of Russian citizens to be imprisoned, beaten and even killed.  Russia’s new blogiticians may have embarrassed Russian President Vladimir Putin during Duma and presidential elections last December and March, but now the empire is striking back.

Denied access to Russian television, Navalny has, nonetheless, grown famous with his LiveJournal anti-corruption blogsite and, which tracks government procurements.  He has dubbed the ruling United Russia Party “the party of swindlers and thieves.”  He had apparently irked folks in the Kremlin to the point that they unleashed their irregular army of cyber criminals and youth-group hackers against LiveJournal and during the spring of 2011.

When charges of traditional and electronic election malfeasance were leveled at the government last winter, Navalny was catapulted onto the political stage—literally—addressing the hundred thousand plus protestors that jammed Moscow streets.  That earned him a 15 day slap-on-the-wrist jail sentence for obstructing traffic.

Released from prison, Navalny headed to the Caspian Sea city of Astrakhan to weigh in on a disputed mayoral election.  There, he was accused of vandalism against a Putin campaign office.  “Even the investigator smiled,” an opposition politician who accompanied Navalny told, “but she said she was given this case.”

Obstruction of traffic, a few days in jail, even a DDoS attack are one thing.  But the embezzlement charge could land Navalny in the Gulag for ten years.  The original accusation from 2009 was that he had given bad financial advice to a state-owned timber company in Kirov, resulting in a $30,000 loss.  The matter has been investigated and dropped three times, twice in the Kirov Oblast and once in the Volga Federal District.

Each time, federal investigators revived the case.  The State Investigative Committee is the Russian Federation’s highest investigating body, directly responsible to Putin.  In last week’s charges, the Committee alleged that Navalny led a criminal gang that stole the timber.

Navalny has struck a raw nerve among Putin’s inner circle.  If his investigations of state corruption and online help for massive street demonstrations were insufficient, in recent months, Navalny has taken a step closer to online opposition 2.0.

Although Internet penetration in Russia is growing by leaps and bounds, including in the countryside, a majority of people outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg still get their news from television.  Accordingly, Navalny’s new campaign—Good Machine of Truth—seeks to combine the power of the Internet with traditional methods to overcome TV, which he calls the “zombie box.”

Social media are used to promote door-to-door campaigns and to organize grassroots opposition, for example, against Krasnodar Governor Aleksandr Tkachyov for his alleged poor performance during July flooding in that region.  Another effort is to distribute electronically posters that allege that utility rates are rising in electoral districts that failed to support Putin and his party.  Wholesale distribution is by Internet, but the posters are real paper, plastered in public places across the country.

And it may be posters that directly led to Navalny’s present difficulties.  When the Duma passed a law requiring any NGO that receives foreign funds—mostly pro-democracy groups—to register as a foreign agent, Navalny wondered online why State Investigative Committee Director Aleksandr Bastrykin, as a federation official, had not divested his holdings in the Czech Republic.  Navalny’s posters fingering Bastrykin have even made their way onto some walls inside the State Investigative Committee.

Perhaps the current charges against Navalny will be reduced, resulting in another wrist-slapping jail term.  Perhaps he will be hounded out of the country.  Perhaps they have a cell reserved for him at the Segheza Correctional Colony Number 7—right next to deposed Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Whatever happens, two things are clear: Russian politics is moving online and the empire is striking back.

Putin’s “Legal” Vendetta

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

After failing to stifle opposition websites and social media during the December Duma elections and abandoning the Internet to the opposition during the March presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears now to understand that the Web plays an immense role in forming the mindset of the people.  Like many countries with democracy deficits, Russia is toughening up its Internet strategies.  Soon after Putin’s inauguration as president, a number of laws were adopted to tighten state control over wired public life.  On the Runet—a colloquial term for Russia’s bit of the Internet—control has become a matter of state security.

During the 2011 run-up to the elections, blog-sites and social networks became arenas for news, discussion of alleged government misconduct and protest organization. Having successfully employed social media to reveal election irregularities, wired opponents of the current government then used social media to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of cities across Russia right after the Duma and presidential elections.

Their success was odd, because the security establishment had for months been expressing concern about uncontrolled social media. There had even been several dry runs of DDoS attacks.  Now we see Putin’s “legal” vendetta.

On July 10, the Duma passed a law to rein in the power of the Runet. The law will create a single registry of domain names, sites and web pages that contain objectionable material. Sites will be removed from the blacklist if they remove harmful information.

Supporters of the new law, mostly members of Putin’s United Russia Party, argue that it is aimed against child pornography and sites that promote drug use and suicide.

However, many Russians believe that the new law will help build a Russian equivalent of the Great Firewall of China.  Russian Wikipedia blacked itself out for 24 hours in protest (as Wikipedia in the US did last January to oppose SOPA).  Russian search engine Yandex and the country’s most popular social media platform, Vkontakte, also protested.

“We certainly support the intention of lawmakers to protect children online,” said Google Russia’s Alla Zabrovskaya.  “However, we believe that the possible negative consequences of applying the law exceed the expected positive effect, jeopardizing users’ access to legal resources.”

“The Kremlezhuliki (Kremlin swindlers) realized that their paid commentators and an army of bots will not help them in their ideological struggle on the Internet,” commented anti-corruption blogger Alexsey Navalny on his LiveJournal page.  “They want to create blacklists, and then ISPs will block a particular site without trial, simply on the orders of the ministry.”

The new law will come into effect on November 1, 2012.  Interestingly, just days before passing it, the Duma also adopted a law declaring all non-profit organizations receiving funds from abroad as foreign agents, meaning that they must register and account for their activities.   Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instructed his deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, to report on the “political activities of NGOs.”  He has also proposed an increase in government funding for Russian NGOs from one to three billion rubles to implement “meaningful social projects.”

So why pass laws to do what the Russian state can already do?  It is Putin’s “legal” vendetta to squeeze democratic institutions and to suppress the power of the Runet in the name of the rule of law.  Russians are reminded of who is boss and some foreigners may feign that they just do not see what is going on.

The Dark Side of Twitter

By Robert Griffith

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

By the time Enrique Peña Nieto is inaugurated as Mexico’s next president, the Twitter-bot techniques that marred the campaigning leading up to that country’s July 1 election will no doubt have spread to some other part of the globe. What country will next experience the dark side of Twitter?

With 465 million accounts—just under a quarter of them in the US—and 175 million Tweets a day, Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms. Millions of fans follow Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, but the human participants are sometimes crowded out by Twitter-bots—zombie accounts that send junk Tweets. And the zombies often have a political agenda.

Twitter-bots have haunted political activists from Morocco to Iran and particularly in Syria. Researchers following the #Syria hash-tag noticed two trends. First were “Twitter eggs,” mostly image-less Twitter accounts that verbally abused and threatened anyone tweeting in favor of the protests or criticizing the Bashar al-Assad regime. Second were spam-generating accounts that flooded the #Syria hash-tag with Tweets about various inane topics and threats against a long list of individuals who expressed support for the protests. #Syria and a few other hash-tags were inundated so that they became meaningless.

The Syrian Twitter-bots were followed in Russia and China. Twitter tactics similar to those employed in Syria were used to drown outanti-Putin protests in Russia. They where also used to drown out Free Tibet sentiments around the world. Junk Tweets hampered activists who were distributing vital information, limiting their effectiveness. Spam such as “Putin is my president” prevented researchers from monitoring developments.

Most recently, Twitter-bots zappedspam messages around Mexico during that country’s presidential and congressional election campaigns. Young, educated, urban and technologically savvy voters make up a quarter of the Mexican population. These voters are disproportionately political independents, forcing the main candidates to use social media effectively to compete for their support.

Apparently, that partly meant resorting to Twitter-bots. In his June 21 article entitledTwitter Mischief Plagues Mexico’s Election in Technology Review, Mike Orcutt writes, “The top contenders in Mexico’s presidential campaigns are engaged in a Twitter spam war, with armies of bots programmed to cast aspersions on opposing candidates and disrupt their social-media efforts.” Another objective of Twitter-bots is to make a topic appear so popular that it becomes atrending topic on twitter.

“For its part,” Orcutt continues, “Twitter clearly states that spamming is against the rules, citing 20 different examples of behavior it considers to be spamming.” However, such pronouncements do not seem to be having much effect. Consequently, Twitter is pursuing some of the top spammers in US courts.

Looking to the future, Orcutt writes, “This large-scale political spamming could foreshadow online antics that campaigners may increasingly resort to in other countries.”

A Google Maps War?

By Kathryn Schiller Wurster

Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

Frank Jacobs, his author bio says, “writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.” And his February 28 post on the New York Times “Borderlines” blog—dedicated to “the stories behind the global map”—is interesting indeed. “Did Google Maps almost cause a war in 2010,” he asks?

Jacobs raises the specter of a web-inspired border war. One example came in November 2010 when Nicaraguan officials justified an incursion into neighboring Costa Rican territory by referring to a borderline indicated on Google Maps. “The digital atlas,” Jacobs writes,“had indeed placed the eastern end of the border between the countries to the south of the generally accepted line, providing Nicaragua with a territorial gain of a few square miles.”

Google, of course, has no legal or political authority to establish or change international boundaries. “Yet, by virtue of its ubiquity,” Jacobs continues,“Google is often the arbiter of first recourse for borders and toponyms…Costa Rica protested, to both Nicaragua and Google Maps.”

Google blamed the State Department, the source of its data in this case, and made the change. However, the problem remains—Nicaragua left its troops in place and Costa Rica responded by sending police to the border (Costa Rica doesn’t have a standing army). According to Jacobs, the issue still has not been resolved and could flare up again.

And this was not the first time that Google has virtually stumbled over border disputes. Similar arguments have arisen over Google’s cartography in Cambodia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Japan, Morocco, India, and even the demure, unguarded border between Germany and the Netherlands.

An earlier New York Times story on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica dispute argued that the Google Maps depicted borderline was merely a pretext in an ongoing border dispute, which had most recently landed in the International Court of Justice. As Ogle Earth, a blog that focuses on digital maps and geospatial imagery, puts it,“Nicaragua did not mistakenly enter Costa Rican territory because it relied on Google Maps. [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega’s justification for Nicaragua’s actions appeal to documents from the 19th century; [the] mention of Google Maps is just a taunt.”

Furthermore, the military action could be attributed to political maneuvering by Ortega, who was able to manipulate public opinion in an election year using the Google Maps error as a tool. Even more intriguing are Costa Rica’s allegations that Venezuela played a role in encouraging Nicaragua to dredge a new channel in the shifting San Juan River delta that defines the border. And, we don’t know why Google drew the boundary where it did—possible explanations range from guidance from the State Department to simple error.

It seems difficult to imagine a war starting over Google Maps alone, although we shouldn’t rule that out completely. What is much more feasible in the near term, however, is that public online data sources will increasingly be used as tools to influence or manipulate public opinion. Google Maps was not fully responsible for the latest flare-up, but the incident raises interesting questions about Google’s position in international relations, its responsibility to present accurate data, and, more broadly, the role of easily accessible information in public opinion, government decisions and even matters of war and peace.