How Government Propaganda Is Undermining Your Online Security

James Frew 27-10-2017

Events in recent years have led to many comparisons to George Orwell’s literary cornerstone 1984. The dystopian future that Orwell presented 5 Banned Books All Geeks Should Read Everything from political treatises, books on religion and faith, and iconic novels have been banned at some point, including some geek favorites. Here are just five banned books we recommend you read. Read More was heavily influenced by events in his lifetime, including the rise of Fascism, Communism, the two World Wars, and the beginnings of the Cold War. The novel’s central character is Winston Smith, a government employee whose task is to rewrite books, documents, and other media so that it always maintains the current Party line.


Or, in other words, to create political propaganda.

Orwell wasn’t writing from a place of pure imagination — propaganda was used heavily by all sides throughout the Second World War. In the years following the book’s 1949 publication, the Cold War escalated. Both sides increasingly relied on propaganda to cement their own reputation and defame the other. The early Utopian ideals of the internet led many to believe that it’s open and transparent ecosystem would help to eliminate propaganda and corruption. As has been only too evident in recent years, access to endless content (and the ability for anyone to publish it) may have made the challenge of eliminating propaganda even harder.

What Is Propaganda?

Since the Cold War, propaganda has largely been associated with manipulative political forces. However, historically propaganda is any information that lacks objectivity. This includes manipulative political messaging, but also encompasses marketing and any selective presentation of facts. It’s something you probably engage in. You wouldn’t walk into your Annual Review and rattle off a list of everything that went wrong in the last year, for example.

government propaganda and online security human puppets
Image Credit: SergeyNivens/Depositphotos

When we hear the term propaganda, it often conjures images of manipulative politicians aiming to control us. However, the origin of the term comes from the Catholic church, when in 1622 they created the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (or Congregation for Propagating the Faith). Propaganda is a means of spreading a message, but by its very nature it is trying to influence you and is biased towards a particular viewpoint.


How the Internet Changed Propaganda

In our modern world saturated with the written word, it can be hard to imagine a time before printing was widely available. However, The Printing Revolution, largely spurred on by the Gutenberg Printing Press, was only just over 500 years ago. Widely available, relatively low cost printing allowed information to spread around the world, creating large scale social change. The internet had a similar effect on information, and made it faster and easier to circulate new ideas.

Importantly, it removed the prohibitive cost barriers to entry that many would have faced when hoping to spread their ideas. In effect, the internet gave everyone a mouthpiece. Almost overnight, anyone could set up a Geocities page and put their thoughts in writing for people across the world to read instantaneously.

government propaganda and online security blogging
Image Credit: AlexBrylov/Depositphotos

Although Geocities may be a distant memory since the collapse of Yahoo! Verizon Acquires Yahoo, Pokemon Go Breaks Records... [Tech News Digest] Yahoo has sold out, Pokemon Go is a record breaker, the Xbox One is going cheap, Netflix nabs new MST3K, and what happens at the end of Pac-Man? Read More , we now have WordPress, Squarespace, and social media to fill the void. Research from Smart Insights shows that there are 3.3 million Facebook posts every minute. In the same time, there are nearly half a million tweets, 1,400 WordPress posts, and 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube. In just over 500 years, we have transitioned from a society where only an elite few are able to spread their ideas, to a position where an insurmountable avalanche of data is produced by billions of people around the world.


Don’t Believe Everything You Read

The ability to share ideas and connect with people the other side of the world has some positive outcomes. People that previously felt isolated have found communities of like-minded people. Then there are internet phenomena like the Ice Bucket Challenge that raised awareness, and a whole lot of money, for ALS. Despite its many benefits Everything You Need To Know About Wikipedia And More Wikipedia is one of the most famous sites on the Internet. It's informative, as well as controversial, and having a page on there is highly sought after. Let's get to know it better. Read More , Wikipedia is often cited as an example of why you can’t trust everything you read on the internet. Allowing anyone to edit the online encyclopedia means that it can’t be relied upon to give verifiable, factual information Is Wikipedia Reliable? Here Are Some Tips on How to Find Out How credible is Wikipedia? Is Wikipedia reliable? Can you trust the information that you find in a particular article there? Here are some tips on how to find out. Read More . It isn’t just Wikipedia that suffers from this — the entire internet is rife with information that is difficult, time-consuming, and often just impossible to verify. It’s this inherent fallibility that gave rise to the Fake News crisis Facebook Offers Tips to Help You Spot Fake News While Facebook doesn't produce fake news, it's at least partly responsible for its dissemination. Which is why it's now offering tips to help you spot fake news before it spreads. Read More of 2016.

Attribution, Attribution, Attribution

The internet hasn’t only changed how we share information, but how we store it too. We chronicle our lives on Facebook Just How Dangerous Is It To Share Your Information On Facebook? Read More and Instagram, upload documents to Dropbox Securing Dropbox: 6 Steps To Take For Safer Cloud Storage Dropbox isn’t the most secure cloud storage service out there. But for those of you who wish to stay with Dropbox the tips here will help you maximize your account’s security. Read More , and entrust Google How Much Does Google Really Know About You? Google is no champion of user privacy, but you might be surprised just how much they know. Read More and Apple with our sensitive data. Those same attributes that made the internet so revolutionary sadly also apply to the nefarious types who want access to that data. They don’t have to be geographically anywhere near their victim, or give any indications to their identity. No one can see them, and this means they can often get away with siphoning off data without anybody noticing. Unlike a crime in the physical world, there are no eyewitnesses, and the attack could have come from anywhere in the world, often leaving investigators with minimal information to start from.

government propaganda and online security anonymous digital punk
Image Credit: ra2studio/Depositphotos

However, the attackers often leave digital trails of their attack: their code, IP address, and timelines. The investigation of these attributes is known as digital forensics. When we think of forensics, it’s usually in the context of a show like CSI, where the perpetrator left behind irrefutable evidence of their involvement with the crime. For example, a fingerprint, or strand of hair. These pieces of evidence are then used to backup a hypothesis of how the crime happened. Fingerprints and strands of hair are (in most cases) uniquely identifiable to an individual The History of Biometric Security, and How It's Being Used Today Biometric security devices were long held ideals in science fiction movies that seemed plausible enough to actually happen, but a little too far-fetched for real world application. Read More . After all, we can’t change our DNA.


But digital forensics is a more complicated affair.

The Difficulty of Digital Forensics

There are a number of branches to digital forensics including computer, mobile device How Do Forensic Analysts Get Deleted Data From Your Phone? Can police really recover deleted pictures or text messages from an Android or iPhone device? Or is it purely fiction? Read More , data analysis, and database forensics. When it comes to data breaches and hacking incidents, it is primarily network forensics that propels an investigation. This involves monitoring and analysis of network traffic in order to detect intrusions. However, this data is often incomplete as network data is not always logged consistently, or a critical area may have been overlooked. In this way, it’s similar to a building maintaining CCTV — but pointing it in the wrong direction. This means that investigators have to make inferences from incomplete data, which highlights the difference between digital and traditional forensics.

An Underlying Motive

Aside from Government organisations, most security research and analysis is performed by private companies. Although it would be tempting to believe that these companies spend time, money, and resource for the public good, ultimately they have something to sell you. Whether this comes in the form of training, security reports, or software — profit and reputation are often motivators for publishing security research.

In August 2017, the security company DirectDefense published a report that implicated a set of security tools called Cb Response were leaking sensitive data. The rationale for this conclusion was Cb Response’s use of Google’s VirusTotal tool. It just so happens that Cb Response was developed by Carbon Black, a competitor to DirectDefense. Despite many companies using VirusTotal, Carbon Black was the only company to be singled out in the report. Although this isn’t representative of the entire industry, it’s worth questioning motive when a report implicates another security company.


The Intersection of Politics and Security

In a world where the President of the United States conducts his affairs via Twitter, it’s easy to see that the digital has a real world impact. The last few Presidential elections have been won not on front lawns but online Clicking Consequences: Why Donald Trump Is Your Fault Every time you click an article about Donald Trump, the media thinks that is what you want to read, and so it spends more time talking about Trump. Stop clicking! Read More — through social media, and advertising alongside traditional media. Grassroots campaigns and online activism have also contributed to the politicisation of the internet. In 2010, the Arab Spring demonstrated just how much impact the digital world could have on politics.

The internet has become highly embedded in almost all economic activity, with the digital economy currently worth over $3 trillion. It is hugely influential and important to most countries around the world. It’s no wonder then, that the fear of cyberwar Is Cyberwar the Next Threat to Your Security? Cyberattacks have become commonplace, with DDoS attacks and data leaks now a weekly occurrence. But what is your role in this? Are there precautions you can take to avoid cyberwarfare? Read More weighs heavy on our minds. Traditionally, in order for one country to attack another, they needed money and an experienced military. Regardless of the eventual outcome, there was a monetary and human cost to pay on any acts of aggression.

government propaganda and online security cyber warfare

However, the internet has radically reinvented how countries attack each other. With a relatively small team, it’s now possible to harm and destabilize another country without having to be anywhere near them. As we’ve seen, attribution can be a difficult and almost impossible task. Sure, investigators may have a theory, but without conclusive evidence, it remains unproven.

When a large scale attack does happen to a Western country, institution, or company, there are common suspects. Russia, China, and North Korea feature heavily in many reports, despite lack of definitive forensic evidence. In a stunning coincidence, it so happens that these three countries are political and military adversaries of the United States and many Western powers.

Making a Narrative Stick

A word that is on the verge of being overused in mainstream media is the term “narrative”. However, it does often accurately describe the situation of “a written account of connected events”. Much of what underlies investigation and reporting on security events is supposition, inference, and hypotheses. Without definitive fact, getting to the bottom of attribution is a lot like joining the dots. A security event is placed into an ongoing narrative, with the story bending to the newest information.

After the astonishing Equifax hack Equihax: One of the Most Calamitous Breaches of All Time The Equifax breach is the most dangerous, and embarrassing, security breach of all time. But do you know all the facts? Have you been affected? What can you do about it? Find out here. Read More left personal details of nearly 150 million people exposed, rumors began to swirl about who could have mounted the attack. Bloomberg published an article “The Equifax Hack Has the Hallmarks of State-Sponsored Pros”. The headline alludes to a nation-state being responsible for the attack, yet the article is light on verifiable fact. In the lengthy post that mostly recounts the known events of the attack, only two unsourced instances are given as evidence. For example, one of the many tools the attackers used had a Chinese interface — proof only that the attackers may have been among the 1.4 billion people in China. Or able to read Chinese. Coincidentally, the headline plays into the Western narrative of a hostile Chinese government.

It also has the effect of reducing the U.S. credit agency’s culpability for the hack.

The Rise of Churnalism

One of the key factors in developing these narratives is the 24 hour news cycle. Publishers push out content quickly to capitalize on the rapidly diminishing traffic of the latest news item. In many cases, websites and media outlets echo press releases given to them without elaboration or fact checking. The carefully worded, intentionally shared information is then by definition propaganda.

This type of journalism is known as churnalism, and is often implicated in the spread of fake news. This problem is compounded by the speed at which information travels online. It takes just seconds to share an article on social media. Coupled with an eye-catching clickbait headline, it can quickly become common knowledge — even if the article is full of misinformation. Many on the internet are quick to make their voice heard, even when arguably they should have stayed quiet The Stupidity of Crowds: The Internet is Wrong a Lot Between the power of social media and a constantly connected world, the online world is bound to make mistakes. Here's four that stand out. Read More .

Keeping a Critical Eye

In September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a directive that all Kaspersky software was to be removed Is Kaspersky Software a Tool of the Russian Government? The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has banned the use of Kaspersky security software on federal computers. Understandably, people are worried - but is Kaspersky really in bed with the Russian government? Read More from government devices. The reason for this is that the DHS is “concerned about the ties between Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence”. Some were quick to denounce Kaspersky as a tool of the Russian government. This was despite the DHS offering no evidence of wrongdoing. That’s not to say that it is definitively untrue, after all “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Equally, China China's Security Demands on US Tech Companies Should Have You Worried China flexed its bargaining muscles recently by distributing a "pledge of compliance" to a number of large American tech firms, and the terms of that pledge are worrying. Read More , Russia Russia's VPN Ban: What Is It and What Does It Mean for You? Millions of people around the world use VPNs to protect their privacy while online. But some states are moving to block VPNs, banning their usage. The latest is Russia -- can you use a VPN... Read More , and North Korea 2014's Final Controversy: Sony Hack, The Interview & North Korea Did North Korea really hack Sony Pictures? Where is the evidence? Did anyone else stand to gain from the attack, and how did the incident get spun into promotion for a movie? Read More all make compelling arguments for your distrust.

However, without proof of wrongdoing or attribution, there is a strong case that it forms part of a larger piece of political propaganda. These political narratives are complex, and often difficult to counter as they are deeply entrenched. Social media doesn’t make the situation any easier How Social Media Is The Newest Military Battleground Britain has revived the 77th Brigade, notorious for its use of unorthodox strategies during WW2, in order to gather intelligence, spread propaganda and control overarching narratives on Facebook and Twitter. Could they be watching you? Read More . Misinformation and fake news are able to spread quickly 10 Tips to Avoid (Spreading) Fake News During a Crisis Here's how to avoid fake news and how you can stop spreading fake news on social media. Read More , spurred on bots designed to spread propaganda.

The best way to avoid this kind of misinformation is to find security experts you can trust. There are some excellent websites Red Alert: 10 Computer Security Blogs You Should Follow Today Security is a crucial part of computing, and you should strive to educate yourself and stay current. You'll want to check out these ten security blogs and the security experts who write them. Read More and Twitter accounts Stay Safe Online: Follow 10 Computer Security Experts On Twitter There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself online. Using a firewall and antivirus software, creating secure passwords, not leaving your devices unattended; these are all absolute musts. Beyond that it comes down... Read More which are known for their unbiased, factual security reporting. However, be wary of others offering security advice, especially if that isn’t their field.

Troy Hunt, who runs the data breach notification service HaveIBeenPwned Check Now and See If Your Passwords Have Ever Been Leaked This nifty tool lets you check any password to see if it's ever been part of a data leak. Read More , wrote about this challenge. He encountered an SEO expert and a psychic that were offering flawed security advice. Although not security experts, both used their position of influence to give dangerous advice. Hunt ultimately concluded “don’t take security advice from SEO experts or psychics”. Sound advice from a security expert that you can trust.

How do you think we can overcome the challenge of digital propaganda? Do you believe it’s a problem? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. PoujolrostM
    May 6, 2018 at 4:59 am

    This is seriously impressive.

  2. John Smith
    December 3, 2017 at 6:15 am

    "Government Propaganda Is Undermining Your Online Security"

    Correct me if I am wrong, were you not the same author with another article promoting gov propaganda pushing net neutrality on everyone while claiming it is not a partisan issue?
    Kind of makes it hard to consider you as objective on this topic.
    This is not a personal attack but an observation.

    • James Frew
      December 3, 2017 at 9:11 pm

      Unfortunately you are wrong in this case. I haven't written any articles on net neutrality.

  3. mike
    November 16, 2017 at 2:59 am

    First, everyone has an agenda, there is no safe, reliable, honest news source and there are reams of information on the death of honesty in all media.
    The way it used to work, is someone had to go to "there," make a record (usually on paper), bring the record back and then it had to be saved. So they, whoever they were, had to find it, go to where "it" was saved, copy it and bring it back, a reliable trail. All this has been reduced to "a click" into the unknown.
    The governments like those in the US and England have to move slowly, unlike a dictatorship and they have thousands, legions, of bureaucrats chipping away at "the people's rights" and privacy day in and day out. If there is any "kick back" the government withdraws for only a moment and returns to its relentless pursuit to gain leverage on its citizens and manipulate them through "news" the same is true of large entities like corporations.
    The real challenge is not to try hide your that barn door is already open and the horse is gone. From taps, internet sniffers, drones etc. you have been "seen" by the governments and other entities that bear you no goodwill and will tell you anything that serves their aims. The real skill now is to do what the guerillas have to do. We have to look like every other "blade of grass" in the fields of people and hide in plain sight and do our own research, trust no one.

  4. John Kelleher
    November 2, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Have you seen the new fall TV line up? I was watching Blindspot the other night, which is usually about a fictitious group of home grown terrorists, but some how half the cast was sold to the evil socialists of Venezuela!? WTF! (I could argue pretty forcibly the US is by far more socialist than Venezuela but let's not go there.) This is just one blatant example of not so subtle propaganda. There are also new shows that are nothing but propaganda like SEAL Team and Valor. This subtle and not so subtle propaganda is all online too-- I don't have a TV. Nothing is safe from the government's warmongering propaganda.

    How do we fix this? I volunteer. Get out of the house, away from this (expletives deleted) and help others. Ain't like the government is going to help us so we better help each other. I got rid of my TV decades ago and I'm damn close to getting rid of the internet too. I got enough books to read to keep me busy till I die.

    (I really had to delete a lot of expletives.)

    • dragonmouth
      December 3, 2017 at 3:00 pm

      "There are also new shows that are nothing but propaganda like SEAL Team and Valor. "
      Do you think "Person of Interest" or "Wisdom of the Crowd" propagandize anything? Is "Untold Stories of the ER" propaganda for ER staffs and medicine? Does "How the Universe Works" propagandize either space or the scientists involved? Just because a drama or documentary show has a topic, it does not mean that it is propaganda. Would you rather only be able to watch endless mind-numbing sitcoms, filled with sophomoric humor and canned laughter?! AFAIAC, sitcoms propagandize mindless mediocrity.

      You want propaganda? Watch "Aerial America." It glorifies how wonderful each state of the Union is.

      • James Frew
        December 3, 2017 at 9:13 pm

        I agree with you both on this actually. I see the point that John was making - some of those shows do feel a little too on the nose. That said, it would be impossible to tell which are/aren't as creative license allows anyone to make anything they choose. A wide range of entertainment is best -- See: Netflix.

  5. topernic
    October 28, 2017 at 12:49 am

    The content is muddled between the danger of propaganda and the danger of online security.
    Your 3rd from last paragraph leaves you hanging. You then go into protecting yourself from online security. You offer no advice on how to weed through propaganda.

    • James Frew
      October 28, 2017 at 6:22 pm

      The difficulty is that each situation is different and its never completely clear what is or isn't propaganda or spin. The only real trick to tackling this is critical thinking, something which applies to fake news too. So I linked the articles we have on identifying fake news, but there is no silver bullet to identify this time of content. Thanks for taking the time to read, evaluate, and comment though.

      • dragonmouth
        October 29, 2017 at 12:12 pm

        Fake news is the latest bete noir, the latest buzz word. All of a sudden it came into prominence when Hillary Clinton lost an election she supposedly couldn't lose. She blamed it and still blames it on "fake news" disseminated by the Trump campaign and the Russians. Bottom line is that "fake news" is news we do not like and/or do not agree with.

        Historically, "fake news" (or propaganda, if you like) has been with us ever since humans have learned how to talk and communicate. Groups have misled other groups with fake news/propaganda for a multitude of reasons, but mostly to gain some kind of an advantage.

        • John Smith
          December 3, 2017 at 6:16 am

          True. Before her also Obama complained about how Fox News is fake news and how they caused his far left agenda to fail.

        • James Frew
          December 3, 2017 at 9:14 pm

          I don't think that's an accurate representation.

    • dragonmouth
      October 29, 2017 at 12:00 pm

      "You offer no advice on how to weed through propaganda."
      As the man says - critical thinking. You weed through the propaganda the way you weed through with ads - you dismiss it. Advertising == propaganda.