It's not often we learn about the secret world of government-paid hackers, but when we do, it's fascinating to see how they they leave their mark. Yesterday, in a rare disclosure, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed details about the State Department's covert cyber war against jihadists to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Unlike previous reports where the Pentagon's U.S. Cyber Command shuts down sites or silently monitors them, the State Department is actively trying to manipulate online extremists.
In the latest example, Clinton said State Department cyber experts hacked Yemeni tribal websites and removed a bunch of Al Qaeda propaganda. So in lieu of postings bragging about killing Americans, online visitors were welcomed with a markedly different message:
“Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni people,” Clinton said Wednesday.
In response, “Extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the Internet,” she said.
By the looks of it, the State Department hack sounds more like 4Chan-esque pranksterism than actual counter-propaganda. If you were a regular reader of jihad forum, would you be converted by a short-term hack of your favorite anti-American site? Probably not. Still, such efforts certainly don't fall outside the mainstream of cyber efforts in England, for example.
Who can forget "Operation Cupcake" in which British intelligence agents hacked into Al Qaeda's magazine Inspire and replaced a recipe for home-made bombs with recipes for American cupcakes? As The Telegraph reported last year:
When followers tried to download the 67-page colour magazine, instead of instructions about how to "Make a bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom" by "The AQ Chef" they were greeted with garbled computer code.
The code, which had been inserted into the original magazine by the British intelligence hackers, was actually a web page of recipes for "The Best Cupcakes in America" published by the Ellen DeGeneres chat show.
It sort of makes you wonder if cyber counter-terrorism operations are more about pwning than changing hearts and minds. At least in the case of Operation Cupcake, the CIA's cyber espionage division argued against manipulating the site, preferring to monitor it, according to reports last summer. Fortunately, it appears that some experts are making their voices heard that LulzSec-style hacks may not be the best way to combat terrorism.
“Is publicizing this stuff on tribal forums reaching a wide enough audience to make a difference?” asked Said Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant at yesterday's hearing. “If you’re already living in Yemen and in a tribal area, you probably don’t need to go to a Web site to join al-Qaeda.”