In a piece on the new Omidyar-funded news-site "The Intercept," Glenn Greenwald pulls together the recent Snowden leaks about the NSA's psyops programs, through which they sought to attack, undermine, and dirty-trick participants in Anonymous and Occupy. The new leaks describe
the NSA' GCHQs use of "false flag" operations (undertaking malicious actions and making it look like the work of a group they wish to discredit), the application of "social science" to disrupting and steering online activist discussions, luring targets into compromising sexual situations, deploying malicious software, and posting lies about targets in order to discredit them.
As Greenwald points out, the unit that conducted these actions, "Jtrig" (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group), does not limit itself to attacking terrorists — it explicitly targets protest groups, and political groups that have no connection with national security, including garden-variety criminals who are properly the purview of law enforcement agencies, not intelligence agencies.
The UK spy agency GCHQ operates a programme, called the "Human Science Operations Cell," whose remit is "strategic influence and disruption."
Some of the slides suggest pretty dubious "social science" (see below) — they read like a mix between NLP hucksters and desperate Pick Up Artist losers.
No matter your views on Anonymous, "hacktivists" or garden-variety criminals, it is not difficult to see how dangerous it is to have secret government agencies being able to target any individuals they want – who have never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crimes – with these sorts of online, deception-based tactics of reputation destruction and disruption. There is a strong argument to make, as Jay Leiderman demonstrated in the Guardian in the context of the Paypal 14 hacktivist persecution, that the "denial of service" tactics used by hacktivists result in (at most) trivial damage (far less than the cyber-warfare tactics favored by the US and UK) and are far more akin to the type of political protest protected by the First Amendment.
The broader point is that, far beyond hacktivists, these surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people's reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they've been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats. As Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, "targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent." Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that "there is anything terrorist/violent in their actions."
Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, have long been the source of speculation. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, a close Obama adviser and the White House's former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-"independent" advocates to "cognitively infiltrate" online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.
How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations [Glenn Greenwald/The Intercept]