On The Internet, Nobody Knows You’re the Government

An oft-repeated meme on the interwebz, and certainly one of my favorites, comes from a Peter Steiner cartoon, first published in The New Yorker on July 5, 1993.


Bearing in mind that Steiner recognized, more than 20 years ago, that we rarely have a clue we’re dealing with online, he was prescient.  But just how prescient is made clear by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept:

Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four classified GCHQ documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance. Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations”.

By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses. But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

Greenwald spills the details, including slides from a powerpoint teaching government agents how to harm its “enemies” through blackhat tactics online, destroying the reputation and credibility of those who question or challenge the government, as well as feeding misinformation to the web to distort and manipulate our understanding of the world.

And despite pronouncements on Sunday morning TV shows, these tactics aren’t limited to the usual suspects (“we must protect ourselves from the terrorists”), but anyone who could pose a threat to the government’s control.

Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft: hostile nations and their leaders, military agencies, and intelligence services. In fact, the discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends.

Blogging software, the stuff that makes this page appear on your screen, provides a blogger with a bit of information about who is coming here, where they are coming from, and even who they are. The information is on a grossly simplistic level, and easily thwarted by any 12-year-old with a basic knowledge of the internet.  Still, I know that many come here from government computers, and I assume them to be lawyers and judges who enjoy internet access at the largesse of their employer.

There are also a great many who come from unknown, or concealed, places, who try to offer ideas that are dubious at best, and mind-numbingly stupid at worst.  Am I the target of the occasional government agent trying to deny, disrupt, degrade and deceive, the “4 D’s” of JTRIG? I doubt it, but then, I may be naïve.

For those who only perceive the internet, the information it provides and the seeds it plants in your head, from the warm glow of your screen, never thinking that you are nothing more than a passive receptacle of whatever crap others throw at you, it’s time to rethink your world.  We don’t know who the disembodied sources of digital information are, who the anonymous commenter who trolls you is.

And you think, “but I know that I’m me, so I know that my information, my views, are for realz, important and to be taken with the respect and sincerity they deserve.”  But none of the other people on the internet know that. We don’t know who you are, what you know, what you’re up to.  We don’t know whether your information is trustworthy, or utter crap. We don’t know if you’re feeding information to screw with us, to manipulate us.  We don’t know if you work for the government.

What has become abundantly clear is that there is little that can be trusted digitally. Clearly, the cloud offers no protection or privacy, as the third party doctrine is alive and well in America, even if the cloud providers weren’t thrilled to comply with any request from their government overlords.  But there is no nugget, no bit, of insight or data that is immune from doubt.

It’s a shame the internet is turning out this way.  It holds such promise, but is so easily compromised.  We, the people who hang around the web, are so easily fooled into accepting and embracing others we don’t know, giving them access to every bit of our lives without a second thought, looking to them for comfort, making them a substitute for actual human beings who were once the stuff of real life.  We have the internet now, and we don’t need to know anything more than that.

Steiner nailed it. He did so with humor, but there is nothing funny about what is being done with the digital world.  He got it more than 20 years ago, and we’re first learning just how right he was.

H/T Radley Balko

21 thoughts on “On The Internet, Nobody Knows You’re the Government

  1. R.P. (aka the Savant)

    “These agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate and warp online discourse… and are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.” Wow, that’s quite an amazing statement, even coming from the likes of Greenwald. I thought Snowden and Greenwald were concerned about the abuses of the NSA collecting meta-data from phone calls. They graduated from that to criticizing the NSA for spying on foreign governments (imagine, a spy agency spying!) ; and now Greenwald believes that the very “integrity of the Internet” (whatever that means) is being compromised by our government. I don’t know how Greenwald can be quoted with any type of seriousness; he has repeatedly made anti-American statements and it is clear that his publication of stolen classified documents is not part of legitimate whistleblowing activity, but done to damage the U.S.

    1. SHG Post author

      I thought Snowden and Greenwald were concerned about the abuses of the NSA collecting meta-data from phone calls.

      Fortunately for the rest of us, issues aren’t limited by what you thought. That was one of the issues. There are others, even if they elude you. As for your irrational extension of harm, it must be painful to be forced to see the world with your eyes so tightly shut.

    2. Mark Draughn

      Regarding the “integrity of the Internet,” I’m not sure of what Greenwald was talking about here (it sounds like a propaganda operation), but prior Snowden revelations have revealed that NSA has compromised many of the encryption tools used to verify identity and protect data on the Internet. A lot of big businesses depend on that, and they’ve all been talking about what to do about it. This is probably going to cost American businesses a lot of money as many customers switch to non-American vendors.

      What it comes down to is this: The NSA compromised the trust framework on which the internet is built, and then let a guy like Snowden walk out with it all. Who knows who else has also taken advantage of their incompetence?

      1. SHG Post author

        I see a great many levels of integrity at risk here. While it’s unclear what exactly Greenwald is talking about, the 4D’s are more adequate justification for the assertion.

  2. R.P. (aka the Savant)

    So, the issues are ‘anything and everything,’ and any means may be taken (stealing documents, compromising state secrets) to achieve these undetermined goals? How can you possibly believe that? There are thousands of government employees, monitored by congressional committees, who devoted countless hours on the projects that Greenwald so cavalierly discloses. When Greenwald had his boyfriend serve as the mule for classified documents (just imagine for a minute the fact that our most closely-guarded secrets were being carried around an airport by a blogger’s boyfriend) and the British govt detained him, Greenwald declared that he would next target Britain, and disclose their secrets. In other words, Greenwald was willing to disclose classified info simply to ‘get back’ at those who disrespected his boyfriend. That tells you all you need to know about him. Yet I see perfectly intelligent people, including lawyers, take the side of Snowden/Greenwald simply out of political correctness – anything to stick a finger in the U.S. government’s eye, apparently. (But don’t criticize Russia or China, whatever you do) You don’t even know what his goals are. To stop the “compromising of the integrity of the Internet?”

    1. SHG Post author

      I see the tin foil hat is on a bit tight today, eh? So Greenwald has a boyfriend?

      That tells you all you need to know about him.

      Rarely does anyone accuse of political correctness, but yeah, I really don’t care if he’s got a boyfriend and his sexual preferences don’t really have much of anything to do with what is revealed here. Remember, the tin foil doesn’t protect you from the gamma rays; it magnifies them.

      By the way, you missed a word in your “aka” commenting name.

      1. R.P. (Savant)

        You quote a statement from Greenwald that the U.S. government is apparently involved in a massive conspiracy to “control” discussion on the Internet, and I’m the one wearing the tin hat? I’m a little slow maybe (it took me a while to ‘get’ the insult in you p.s.) but no foil on my head as of yet… Signed, Savant Idiota

        1. SHG Post author

          Even paranoids have enemies, and sadly, it turns out the government is indeed doing at least some of the things conspiracy theorists have long claimed. Their hats are looking much better these days.

  3. drouse

    Of course this might be a perfect example of what G.G. was exposing. I have most definitely noted that whenever the subject of Glen comes up posters pop up doing their best to discredit him. It doesn’t matter where, even (especially?) on sites where support for him is normally strong. Anecdotal? Yes, but it is a very consistent phenomena.

    1. R.P. (Savant)

      How am I trying to improperly discredit Greenwald? By pointing to anti-american statements he has made in the past, to demonstrate his motivations? By pointing out that his supposed legitimate reasons for disclosing classified info is constantly changing (first, its NSA spying on citizens; then its NSA spying on foreign govt., now its the NSA supposedly trying to “compromise” the entire Internet)? By noting that he threatened to disclose Great Britain’s secret info simply to retaliate against him because they detained his boyfriend? Tell me, which of those arguments are improper efforts to “discredit” Greenwald? Greenwald has destroyed years of effort by thousands of government workers on behalf of the U.S., for reasons that aren’t even clear, and yet you don’t question a bit of it. I’m just amazed that intelligent people, esp. lawyers, automatically back Greenwald, unquestioningly.

  4. NPC

    Strange how off the hop, the first comment you get is from someone who pooh-poohs the idea that the U.S. government can do something evil. We are a Republic, not a fascist or socialist state. Our freedoms are disappearing one by one because people like R.P. think the government should be able to tell us what to do, believe and think. This leftist notion has bit by bit destroyed nearly every aspect of American society.

  5. UltravioletAdmin

    So basically they’re doing an online version of the same stuff NYPD’s Intelligence Division always did, like sending undercover agents to Mosques, or to Vietnam War Protests and act as agitators. Or the FBI COINTELPRO work on Dr. King and other organizations.

    Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss.

    1. SHG Post author

      Or maybe this is far more organized, directed, competent and pervasive than anything the NYPD was capable of doing or the FBI tried in its ham-fisted way back in the ’60’s. Disruption and disinformation aren’t new tools, but this appears far better done than the past. Or at least what we knew of the past.

  6. AlphaCentauri

    “So basically they’re doing an online version of the same stuff NYPD’s Intelligence Division always did, like sending undercover agents to Mosques, or to Vietnam War Protests and act as agitators. Or the FBI COINTELPRO work on Dr. King and other organizations.

    Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss.”

    The difference is lots more witnesses than when LE infiltrates IRL groups.

    A lot of the tactics they describe for interacting on forums are pretty similar to garden-variety trolling. So you can just not feed them, and most of us are getting pretty good at that. But you can also take control of the interaction, turning their comments against them to end up demonstrating the correctness of your own position. The main problem is that it can work so well it looks like you are engaging in sock-puppetry yourself.

    1. SHG Post author

      Is it the same as Ordinary Trolls? Or sockpuppets? Or does this cause us to doubt everything and everyone online? And what about you, Comrade?

      1. Fubar

        The latest research indicates that greater sockpuppets have lesser sockpuppets upon their hands to write ’em, and lesser sockpuppets have smaller yet; and so ad infinitum.

        It’s sockpuppets all the way down.

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