Official White House photo by Pete Souza
In Wired today: ‘Russian trolls stole US identities to hide in plain sight’. This included hacking to steal Social Security details, then create social media presences using real identities.
I could have told you about the fake Facebook presences in 2014. Hang on, I did. There was an entire series of blog posts about it here and on my Tumblr.
While I couldn’t have known who was behind these accounts, I said Facebook had an ‘epidemic’ of bots back then. Some were really fake. But many used convincing American names and US cities and towns. Some were hacked existing accounts but most, back then, were newly created. I even tended to list them before I got tired of doing so. In one night in 2014, I found 277 fake accounts. Facebook wouldn’t even let me report more than 50 per day. After reporting them, they left many of them up, and they necessitated repeated reports.
You can go on my Tumblr and find more posts like that, but with fewer than 277. Still, that wasn’t an outlier. I had another night were there were 240 or so.
Now, if one guy can find 200-plus in one night, just how many were there?
According to the indictment, the Russians not only created Paypal accounts, bank accounts, and false identity documents with stolen American identities, but also created social media accounts, using victims’ names to more authentically fabricate political sock puppets and avoid detection.
WIRED reached out to both Twitter and Facebook to ask if the companies had any prior knowledge of those impersonation instances, and Twitter declined to respond.
Facebook didn’t respond to WIRED’s specific questions on those stolen accounts.
Let me tell you now that Facebook did have prior knowledge of impersonation instances and stolen accounts, and I allege they go back many years. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment alleges that the accused started their social media work (the ‘translator project’) in April 2014, the same year I reported what I saw. (A few years later, a massive bunch of South Korean Facebook accounts were hacked and renamed.) Commercial bot nets (my original suspicion, but then I’m lousy at thinking up crimes and would make an appalling crime novelist), or something more sinister?
To this day, Holly Jahangiri and I can still find them. I don’t even use my Facebook wall any more, and just have a glance at a few groups and pages I run. Even there the bots are coming thick and fast, and many of the ones Holly finds impersonate US military family members.
Maybe it’s a stretch to say it’s “the Russians”. I still find it hard to believe I could have stumbled upon anything like that, but reading that indictment, and the years the US Justice Department names, makes me wonder. There’s that list of 277—feel free to investigate them if you can, whether you are American or Russian. It’s open to all, and I’d love to know who was behind them. My only real surprise is that others, surely, must have seen this? So many of us use Facebook. I didn’t hunt for these people, they were just around, joining groups and pages, and sending friend requests to cover how fake they were. It didn’t take a genius to work out they were fake. I spent days reporting them because I didn’t want a site I was using to be full of bots, sucking up resources.