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Anonymous: Why Does the Air Force Want to Create Phony Online Identities?

The international collective known as Anonymous is trying to figure out just what the U.S. Air Force wants with software that can create and manage phony identities on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks.

Called Operation Metal Gear, the effort is aimed at shining light on software that that sets up phony Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts and that helps operatives manage them so they seem like they were set up by real people, with the apparent object of gathering data about the actual real people they friend.

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Anonymous members say they think the software can be used as a tracking and infiltration mechanism on social media sites, both to build profiles of actual members and to influence discussions. It speculates that pro-U.S. Facebook postings in Iraq may actually be written by U.S. operatives using assumed names and dummy accounts.

The U.S. Air Force says it's for use in "classified social media activities outside the U.S., intended to counter violent extremist ideology and enemy propaganda." Asked for more detail via e-mail, a spokesman for the Air Force declined, but reiterated that the software was for use outside the U.S.

A request for bids to supply this software was part of the information contained in e-mails stolen from HBGary Federal by Anonymous, which posted them in response to the intent of HBGary's then-CEO Aaron Barr to expose the names of Anonymous members. The Air Force proposal was an attachment to one of the e-mails.

The software, referred to in an Air Force posting seeking the technology as a "persona management system," would create these false users "replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent."

The request also calls for VPN software to connect operatives to dispersed servers that would be used to launch messages from each persona, giving the impression that the persona was sending from a particular geographic location. The Air Force is also seeking static IP address management to give personas a consistent profile, if that is deemed appropriate.

The software being sought would provide operatives with a dashboard that would help them keep the multiple personas separate and post clearly on the screen which persona is being used at the time. The Air Force request for bids says the software would be deployed at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Baghdad, Iraq.

Anonymous members recorded on an audio file on Ge.tt speculate that such software products already exist and can also track postings in multiple social media accounts, correlate data and figure out whether accounts under different names are really the same person.

They say the software could be used to create false public opinion, so if protests against governments friendly to the U.S. were being organized via Facebook, operatives could generate pro-government posts to counter those against.

This type of software could be used to do background checks on individuals using their social networking accounts, says John Pironti, president of IP Architects, a security consulting firm. It could be used to find information to discredit individuals as well, he says.

It could be used to friend the children of a person being investigated to find out personal information, such as when the family will be vacationing, he says. "This is why social networking is really bad," he says.

The software extends intelligence-gathering techniques that have been used for hundreds of years, Pironti says. Whereas before a spy would wear a physical disguise, now they don false personas. "The techniques aren't new, just the platform is new," he says.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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