Leaked British Spy Catalog Reveals Tools to Manipulate Online Information

The British spy agency GCHQ has tools to manipulate online information as well as collect intelligence

3 min read
Leaked British Spy Catalog Reveals Tools to Manipulate Online Information
Illustration: Getty Images

No online communication is for your eyes only in the age of Internet surveillance by government spy agencies. But a leaked British spy catalog has revealed a wide array of online tools designed to also control online communication by doing everything from hacking online polls to artificially boosting online traffic to a particular website.

The spy catalog information developed by the British spy agency GCHQ comes from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, according to The Intercept. Such documents don't contain much in the way of technical information about how the online spy tools work, but they do reveal a colorful array of code names for methods aimed at both collecting information and manipulating online information seen on websites such as Facebook and YouTube. The GCHQ's Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) that developed the catalog described most of the tools as being "fully operational" or else "very close to being ready."

Some of the most intriguing spy tools show the UK spy agency's desire to control and manipulate both online and cellphone communication, including emails and popular social media networks such as Facebook. In the latter case, a tool named "Clean Sweep" can "masquerade Facebook wall posts for individuals or entire countries." Another tool called "Burlesque" can send spoofed (faked) SMS text messages. And "Scrapheap Challenge" can send fake emails that appear to originate from a target Blackberry device.

Other tools can change the online information and websites that ordinary Internet users might see. A tool named "Underpass," previously known as "Nubilo," can supposedly change the outcome of online polls. "Bomb Bay" has the capability to boost a website's recorded hits and rankings in order to improve its popularity. Similarly, "Gateway" artificially increases the traffic going to a certain website, while "Slipstream" inflates page views. A more mysterious tool named "Gestator" aims to amplify certain messages, typically videos, on "popular multimedia websites such as YouTube."

The catalog also reveals efforts to counter the propaganda of terrorist and insurgent groups. "Bumpercar" represents an automated system capable of filing "offensive material" reports on video upload services such as YouTube, with the goal of getting "terror videos" removed. Another tool called "Silverlord" targets video-based websites hosting "extremist content" for the purpose of discovering and removing such content.

Some of the listed spy tools also appear to fulfill propaganda purposes or other information operation campaigns by sending out mass emails and text messages. Others appear to come from a hacker wish list by launching denial of service attacks. And one intriguing tool named "Glitterball" comes with the description: "Online gaming capabilities for sensitive operations." The latter seemed to be used by British agents in the online game "Second Life" as of the document's latest update in July 2012. (For more, see "Spy Games: Spooks Infiltrated Online Games.")

By now, few people should be surprised that government spies have tools to eavesdrop on both cellphone and online communication. For instance, much has already been revealed about how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) scoops up online records from the internal networks of Internet giants such as Google and Yahoo, as well as how the spy agency tracks cellphone location data worldwide. But the recent revelations about GCHQ's activities show that the UK spy agency also has a strong interest in actively controlling both public information and personal communication in certain cases.

Such online tools give some real-world heft to the fictional boast of Q, the MI6 gadgets man of the long-running 007 films, as he compares his hacking skills to James Bond's more physical approach in the 2012 film "Skyfall": "I can do more damage on my laptop, sitting in my pajamas, before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field."

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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