Spies! They were all over Washington. Yes, they liked us. They were British, after all.
But they had a mission: to get their American cousins into the war against Nazi Germany ... even if they had to play dirty. They did.
Part of Britain's World War II spy network was the "Rumor Factory." It manufactured only two products: half-truths and misleading stories designed to whip up anti-Nazi and pro-British sentiment.
The factory had rules for spreading rumors on the Potomac. Jennet Conant cataloged them in "The Irregulars," her fascinating history of wartime Washington. The list included advice like "a good rumour should never be traceable to its source" and "a rumour should be of the kind that gains in the telling."
British agents worked the Capitol social scene. They partied for a purpose, collecting and dispensing tall tales. They even manufactured a map purporting to show Hitler's plan for dividing up postwar Latin America. Eventually that map made it all the way up to the Oval Office. President Roosevelt cited the forged document in a speech warning his fellow Americans about the rising Nazi menace.
history reminds us that social networking is not new. In the 1940s, information got passed at cocktail parties and weekend picnics. Today, it's done online through Twitter, Facebook and other "social networking" tools, often called "Web 2.0."
Also not new is using the social scene for malicious activity. Bad actors always find a way to do mischief in the public square. That fact has important implications for both public safety and national security -- particularly as Washington looks to harness Web 2.0 to create Government 2.0.
Many federal agencies have already embraced these new technologies. The White House has a blog. So do a lot of federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using social networking tools to spread public health information on how to deal with the swine flu.
When the public and private sectors jumped on the bandwagon to put a computer in every cubicle, they discovered -- to their chagrin -- that the wagon delivered risks as well as rewards. Information technology caused productivity to skyrocket, but it also opened the door to new threats -- everything from computer viruses to botnets, software robots that surreptitiously take over a computer.
Even if Washington figures out how to master Web 2.0, it will need to keep close watch. It will need to put a premium on information assurance -- knowing that the data are precise and reliable. Rumors, perfidy or inaccurate information can be dispersed at least as fast as facts.
A recent FBI news release offers a perfect example. Apparently, in one of the more popular scams, criminals pretend to be legitimate users on places like Facebook and Twitter and then "send out distress messages claiming they are in some sort of legal or medical peril and requesting money from their social networking contacts."
It is not hard to imagine malicious actors mimicking government social networking tools and creating some serious confusion and disruption. Likewise, users might be enticed to click on a video or audio file that injects government computers with viruses that give the wrong people access to sensitive information. Or the virus could implant malicious codes that would disrupt computer systems, wiping out vital databases and communications systems.
As Washington embraces social networking, it needs to think more about how it will protect against the kinds of anti-social activities that will inevitably make their way online.
James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Washington Examiner