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DOJ Russia Indictment Again Highlights Why Internet Companies Can't Just Wave A Magic Wand To Make Bad Stuff Go Away

As you've certainly heard by now, earlier today the Justice Department announced that it had indicted thirteen Russian individuals and three Russian organizations for various crimes related to trying to influence the US election. You should read the full indictment if you haven't already. Not surprisingly it focuses on the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA), which was the giant Russian online trolling operation that we've discussed going back to 2015.

While many are trying to position the indictment as a "significant" bit of news, I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed. It really does not reveal much that wasn't already widely known. It's been widely reported that the Russians had interest in disrupting our democracy and sowing discord, including setting up and pushing competing rallies from different political sides, and generally stoking fires of distrust and anger in America. And... the indictment seems to repeat much of that which has already been reported. Furthermore, this indictment actually reminds me quite a bit of a similar indictment four years ago aginst various Chinese officials for "hacking" crimes against the US. As we noted then, indicting the Chinese -- who the US would never be able to arrest anyway -- just seemed to be a publicity stunt, that had the potential to come back to haunt the US. It kinda feels the same here.

What is interesting to me, however, is that the indictment also demonstrates why all the hand-wringing against Facebook, Twitter and Google seems kind of misplaced. For months we've been seeing big articles and Congressional hearings questioning why the platforms allowed the Russians to use their services as propaganda tools -- even getting the companies to recently send out (useless, confusing) announcements to people about whether or not they saw or reposted Russian troll propaganda. But what the indictment makes pretty clear, is that the Russians made it nearly impossible for an internet service to ferret them out. The money used was spread out among many different banks and laundered through various means to make it more difficult to trace back. And it details just how far the trolls went to appear to be Americans, including traveling to the US, posing as Americans online to talk to actual US activists and push them in certain directions. And, of course, confusing the internet platforms into thinking they were Americans:

ORGANIZATION employees, referred to as "specialists," were tasked to create social media accounts that appeared to be operated by U.S. persons. The Specialists were divided into day-shift and night-shift hours and instructed to make posts in accordance with the appropriate U.S. time zone. The ORGANIZATION also circulated lists of U.S. holidays so that specialists could develop and post appropriate account activity. Specialists were instructed to write about topics germane to the United States such as U.S. foreign policy and U.S. economic issues. Specialists were directed to create "political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements."

Defendants and their co-conspirators also created thematic group pages on social media sites, particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. ORGANIZATION- controlled pages addressed a range of issues, including: immigration (with group names including "Secured Borders"); the Black Lives Matter movement (with group names including "Blacktivist"); religion (with group names including "United Muslims of America" and "Army of Jesus"); and certain geographic regions within the United States (with group names including "South United" and "Heart of Texas"). By 2016, the size of many groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers.

Most of those groups (if not all?) had previously been revealed by the platforms or by news reports. But the extent to which the Russians went to cover their trails is more revealing.

To hide their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation, Defendants and their co- conspirators--particularly POLOZOV and the IT department--purchased space on computer servers located inside the United States in order to set up virtual private networks Defendants and their co-conspirators connected from Russia to the U.S.-based infrastructure by way of these VPNs and conducted activity inside the United States? including accessing online social media accounts, opening new accounts, and communicating with real U.S. persons--while masking the Russian origin and control of the activity.

Defendants and their co-conspirators also registered and controlled hundreds of web-based email accounts hosted by U.S. email providers under false names so as to appear to be U.S. persons and groups. From these accounts, Defendants and their co-conspirators registered or linked to online social media accounts in order to monitor them; posed as U.S. persons when requesting assistance from real U.S. persons; contacted media outlets in order to promote activities inside the United States; and conducted other operations, such as those set forth below.

Use of Stolen U.S. Identities

In or around 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators also used, possessed, and transferred, without lawful authority, the social security numbers and dates of birth of real U.S. persons without those persons' knowledge or consent. Using these means of identification, Defendants and their co-conspirators opened accounts at PayPal, a digital payment service provider; created false means of identification, including fake driver's licenses; and posted on social media accounts using the identities of these U.S. victims. Defendants and their co-conspirators also obtained, and attempted to obtain, false identification documents to use as proof of identity in connection with maintaining accounts and purchasing advertisements on social media sites.

This was not just some run-of-the-mill "pretend to be Americans," this was a hugely involved process to make it very difficult to determine that they were not Americans.

I've seen some people online claiming that this shows why the platforms have to take more responsibility for who is using their platform:

But my read on it is exactly the opposite. It shows just how ridiculous such a demand is. Would any of us be using these various services if we were all forced to go through a detailed background check just to use a social media platform? That seems excessive and silly. Part of the reason why these platforms are so useful and powerful in the first place is that they're available for nearly everyone to use with little hurdles in the way. That obviously has negative consequences -- in the form of trolling and scams and malicious behavior -- but there's also a ton of really good stuff that has come out of it.

We should be pretty cautious before we throw away all of the value of these platforms just because some people used them for nefarious purposes. People are always going to be able to hide their true intentions from the various platforms -- and the response to that shouldn't be "put more blame on the platforms" -- it should be a recognition of why it's so silly to blame the tools and services for the actions of the users.

Yes, we should be concerned about foreign attempts to influence our elections (while noting that the US, itself, has a long history of doing the same damn thing in other countries -- so this is a bit of blowback). But blaming the technology platforms the Russians used seems to be totally missing the point of what happened -- and risks making the internet much worse for everyone else.

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