October 20, 2009
By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
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
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
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
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
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
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
First Appeared in the Washington Examiner
Spies! They were all over Washington. Yes, they liked us. They were British, after all.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director
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