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These days, with Facebook and Twitter and social media galore, it can be increasingly hard to tell who your "friends" are.
But after this, Internet users would be well advised to ask another question entirely: Are my "friends" even real people?
In the continuing saga of data security firm HBGary, a new caveat has come to light: not only did they plot to help destroy secrets outlet WikiLeaks and discredit progressive bloggers, they also crafted detailed proposals for software that manages online "personas," allowing a single human to assume the identities of as many fake people as they'd like.
The revelation was among those contained in the company's emails, which were dumped onto bittorrent networks after hackers with cyber protest group "Anonymous" broke into their systems.
In another document unearthed by "Anonymous," one of HBGary's employees also mentioned gaming geolocation services to make it appear as though selected fake persons were at actual events.
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Though many questions remain about how the military would apply such technology, the reasonable fear should be perfectly clear. "Persona management software" can be used to manipulate public opinion on key information, such as news reports. An unlimited number of virtual "people" could be marshaled by only a few real individuals, empowering them to create the illusion of consensus.
You could call it a virtual flash mob, or a digital "Brooks Brothers Riot," so to speak: compelling, but not nearly as spontaneous as it appears.
That's precisely what got DailyKos blogger Happy Rockefeller in a snit: the potential for military-run armies of fake people manipulating and, in some cases, even manufacturing the appearance of public opinion.
"I don't know about you, but it matters to me what fellow progressives think," the blogger wrote. "I consider all views. And if there appears to be a consensus that some reporter isn't credible, for example, or some candidate for congress in another state can't be trusted, I won't base my entire judgment on it, but it carries some weight.
"That's me. I believe there are many people though who will base their judgment on rumors and mob attacks. And for those people, a fake mob can be really effective."
It was Rockefeller who was first to highlight the Air Force's "persona" contract, which was available on a public website.
A call to MacDill Air Force Base, requesting an explanation of the contract and what this software might be used for, was answered by a public affairs officer who promised a call-back. No reply was received at time of this story's publication.
Other e-mails circulated by HBGary's CEO illuminate highly personal data about critics of the US Chamber of Commerce, including detailed information about their spouses and children, as well as their locations and professional links. The firm, it was revealed, was just one part of a group called "Team Themis," tasked by the Chamber to come up with strategies for responding to progressive bloggers and others.
"Team Themis" also included a proposal to use malware hacks against progressive organizations, and the submission of fake documents in an effort to discredit established groups.
HBGary was also behind a plot by Bank of America to destroy WikiLeaks' technology platform, other emails revealed. The company was humiliated by members of "Anonymous" after CEO Aaron Barr bragged that he'd "infiltrated" the group.