Since activists in Azerbaijan started using Facebook to coordinate and widen their campaign to free two imprisoned video blogging youth activists before their release late last year, many have long been aware that the authorities in the oil-rich former Soviet republic are starting to keep a closer eye on social networking sites.
In June 2010, for example, the Azadliq newspaper reported that in order to counter online activists, pro-government youth were being encouraged to join Facebook, and most recently there has been what many consider to be a campaign to discredit Facebook in the media. This has also extended to ‘exposing’ those with online links to contacts in ‘enemy’ nations.
Coming prior to protests, encouraged by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, staged on 11th March this year, several activists were also detained, allegedly for their online activities. Now, new allegations have also emerged from Anonymous, the international hacking community, as Forbes reported earlier this week.
Anonymous adviser Barrett Brown claimed on the group’s Radio Payback show earlier today that the software had led to pro-democracy dissidents in Azerbaijan, where Booz Allen has offices, getting arrested. The software creates “armies of fake people” through social media sites like Facebook, he said, which results in identifying dissidents with anonymous profiles, a method also known as astroturfing.
While online culture in the South Caucasus still amounts to pretty much adding anyone who sends a friend request on Facebook whether users know them or not, claims that software developed in the U.S. could automate the process and be used by governments to track and monitor networks is particularly cause for alarm.
Dubbed ‘MetalGear’ by Anonymous, the idea of ‘personal management software,’ does however take the task of monitoring citizens to a new and more sophisticated level if details provided by The Tech Herald are correct.
The MetalGear story starts with a proposal [archive copy] from the Office of Air Mobility Command, within the U.S. Air Force, in June of 2010.
The proposal asked for 50 user licenses for software that would allow 10 personas per user. In all, this is a virtual army of 500 personas, who can be centrally controlled by a small group of people.
According to the bid put out, personas must be “…replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally, and geographically consistent.”
In an interview with RFE/RL in January, Evgeny Morozov said that he believed internal security agencies might actually welcome activists joining sites such as Facebook because it makes the task of monitoring their networks easier. Reports of dissidents being arrested, as well as software such as “MetalGear” being developed, seems to confirm that.
For now, however, Forbes says that the evidence for a link between Booz Allen and Azerbaijan is ‘pretty wobbly,’ but nonetheless notes that the company has offices in Baku, the country's capital. A spokesman for Booz Allen also declined to respond to the allegations, saying only that ‘he could not comment on “rumor or speculation” or on contracts […]‘
Nevertheless, whether the allegations are true or not, they do raise more questions about U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's declared intent to fight Internet repression abroad. Critics already argue that Net Freedom should also extend to the development, sale and export of online surveillance and monitoring tools by U.S. companies.
Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote that, “Software like this has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate.”
Global Voices is currently looking into the allegations made by Anonymous and will update readers when more details are known.