The Shadowy World of Information Warfare
Most of the most powerful players in the world of digital surveillance aren’t government intelligence agencies, but private corporations.
Technological advances and seismic shifts in the way information is diffused and transmitted have categorized the modern era, drastically impacting on all aspects of modern life. But the consequences of these leaps and bounds can be drastic, especially when one considers the impact they have had on the way politics, government and global warfare operate in the present day.
The governments of some of the world’s most influential global powers, American and Israeli private intelligence groups, tech firms and other organizations have all mastered the art of digital espionage, posing a threat to privacy, democracy and freedom around the world. This represents a complete and dramatic transformation of the global intelligence paradigm. However, what is even more concerning is the fact that the most powerful players in this arena aren’t government intelligence agencies, but rather private corporations.
“Private Mossad” and the Israeli Model
Nearly all of the most effective and feared private intelligence agencies are based in Israel and fill the ranks with ex-Mossad and Israeli special forces operatives. One of these agencies was Psy-Group, which was the brainchild of Joel Zamel and Royi Burstein. Psy-Group was forced to cease operations after the organization came under scrutiny during Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian involvement in the 2016 United States Election.
The massive popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has drastically changed the way that power is gained and lost in the modern world. According to Uzi Shaya, who formerly operated in some of the highest echelons of Israeli intelligence, “Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds. You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. It’s a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted. There are no regulations. It is a no man’s land.”
One of the oldest and most reliable methods of gathering information that has been employed throughout history by spies, journalists and jealous lovers is using a disguise or other method of concealment to pose as someone else. In the internet era, where anyone can easily cloak themselves in secrecy behind a computer screen, this is easier than ever. In the espionage world, this technique is known as pretexting, and is one of the most commonly employed tactics used by intelligence groups to gather information.
Many of the most well-known and successful of these private intelligence mercenary groups are almost entirely made up of ex-Israeli military and intelligence operatives, so it should come as no surprise that they have been very active in efforts to silence groups who raise awareness about human rights abuses committed by Israel in Palestine and attempt to stop these atrocities.
Joel Zamel, Psy-Group’s founder, allegedly offered his group’s services to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, attempting to use his relationship with Newt Gingrich to offer his services to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Some people trace the beginnings of information warfare and this type of espionage conducted by private organizations to a man named Jules Kroll. Private detective agencies of some sort or another have been around for ages, but Kroll was the first man to fully expand the field into the modern arenas of new technology, corporate espionage, and media manipulation with his company Kroll, Inc.
Kroll describes the services his company provides as “risk mitigation.” However, some people take a different view of his organization’s activities, and Kroll, Inc. has been described by some as a “private C.I.A.”
Rather than harvesting his employees from the ranks of former law enforcement officers, as is still the norm for most private investigation firms, Kroll attempted to build an army of agents from diverse backgrounds who could think outside the box. Think philosophers, journalists, lawyers.
Due to its policy of mandatory military service, Israel has an extremely high amount of skilled military and intelligence operatives within its population. One of the first men to take advantage of this fertile opportunity to create highly specialized private intelligence organizations was Gadi Aviran.
In 2004, Aviran started a company called Terrogence that attempted to use pretexting techniques to uncover information about possible terrorist attacks in Israel. Terrogence was one of the first large private intelligence firms in Israel, and was wildly successful.
It wasn’t long until unscrupulous imitators tried to follow in the footsteps of Terrogence with little to no respect for international law, personal privacy and moral decency as they attempted to dig up dirt on the subjects of their investigations by any means necessary.
Mossad is the most famous of Israel’s elite military espionage organizations, but many of these private agencies also draw their ranks from former members of Unit 8200. This is the unit of the Israeli armed forces active in signals intelligence, which has recently become one of the most important tools intelligence operatives have in their arsenal.
Signals intelligence refers to the gathering of “signals,” which essentially means intercepting communications between two parties, whether using methods as old-fashioned as eaves-dropping on a private conversation or as high-tech as using computer science to read encrypted emails and text messages.
Some private intelligence firms, such as Black Cube, openly bragged about their connections to Mossad and Unit 8200. Remember how Kroll, Inc. was referred to as a “private C.IA.?” Black Cube, a direct descendent of this type of private intelligence organization is often called a “private Mossad.”
Black Cube is one of the most infamous Israeli private intelligence agencies and has garnered more than its fair sure of negative press due to its unsavory associations and overly aggressive tactics. The most recent scandal facing the company stems from the fact that disgraced movie mogul and rapist Harvey Weinstein attempted to use the group’s services to scare The New York Times out of publishing information that would expose his predatory criminal behavior.
This information was revealed during Weinstein’s trial by Dev Sen, a corporate lawyer at powerhouse New York firm Boies Schiller Flexner, who claimed that his company had helped the perverted producer get in touch with Black Cube.
Black Cube has also been implicated in the plot to disgrace and defame prominent Putin critic Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Two Black Cube operatives known by the codenames “Patrik Dayan” and “Vanessa Collins” posed as members of a company known as “Nile Bridge Capital” and attempted to gather information on Ashurkov’s political and economic activities by pretending that they wanted to hire Ashurkov and his wife’s event-planning company to help organize a party in London.
Another of Black Cube’s failed attempts to slander the character of one of their clients’ enemies was their plan to trick retired Ontario supreme court judge Frank Newbould into making anti-Semitic remarks using methods of entrapment and pretexting. Newbould now works as a counsel at Toronto law firm Thornton Grout Finnigan and an arbitrator at Arbitrator place.
This plot stemmed from a 2016 disagreement between the powerful Toronto private-equity firms Catalyst Capital Group and West Face Capital. Newbould was the trial judge in the case and Catalyst has admitted that it hired Black Cube in order to find a way to deal with the problems they believed that Newbould was giving them in the courtroom.
A Black Cube agent identified as Erez Gabriel Michaeli posed as a man named Hugo Gabriel Saavedra Rodriguez, who claimed the be the executive director at London based consulting firm Victorius Group. British business records do not contain a company of this name at the address provided to Newbould by Michaeli.
Over dinner at exclusive Toronto restaurant Scaramouche, Michaeli repeatedly attempted to bait Newbould into making disparaging remarks about the Jewish people by peppering his conversation with references to “the Jewish lobby,” “the Jewish issue” and “the Jewish way of doing things,” which was described as “all the time trying to take more than they should, and more than agreed.”
Canadian journalist Christie Blatchford was also contacted by various Black Cube operatives posing as different characters in an effort to convince her to expose “information” they had about Newbould’s supposed anti-Semitic bias in the Catalyst case and others.
One of the first groups to truly realize the potential of information warfare was the soviet era K.G.B., who began using what were referred to as “active measures,” or aktivniye meropriyatiya in Russian, to prevent the re-election of then president Ronald Reagan. Up until this point, intelligence agencies mostly concerned themselves with gathering information in order to foil enemy plots and infiltrate the ranks of their adversaries, but active measures revolutionized the espionage game by taking things a step further: actively influencing events and outcomes by propagating false information and taking other steps to discredit and smear foes.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia promised C.I.A,. operatives that they would stop using active measures against the United States, but as recently as 2008 the former station chief for Russian Intelligence in New York, Sergey Tretyakov, who defected in 2000, wrote “Nothing has changed. Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.”
The increasing proliferation of “fake news” has its roots in a Russian intelligence technique known as dezinformatsiya, the deliberate propagation of false information in order to cause confusion and obscure the truth. During the 2016 election, Russian intelligence was involved in a concerted effort with the Trump presidential campaign to unduly influence the outcome of the election by weakening the democratic party using dezinformatsiya and even going so far as to hack into the computers and emails of senior Democratic party members and people working for the Clinton campaign.
Putin’s regime has become adept at manipulating television and other media sources for political gain and stifling opposition voices. The use of this combination of modern tactics adapted from strategies used by western countries in Russia stems from an article whose title can be translated as The Value of Science in Prediction published in the Military-Industrial Courier and written by Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. This article was so influential that this collection of strategies is often referred to as the Gerasimov doctrine.
Russia’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 election and gain access to the personal information and documents of DNC members had far-reaching effects on the individuals targeted. Donna Brazile, who was at the time the interim chair of the DNC, commented “this was not the usual kind of antipathy that you find in American politics… It was psychological warfare at its best.”
However, Russia is far from the only major world power with a highly developed cyberwarfare program. As early as 2008, the United States and Israel collaborated to develop a “worm” called Stuxnet. This was essentially a virus that infected the technological infrastructure of Iranian nuclear systems, disrupting their centrifuges and stalling the country’s nuclear development.
Perhaps even more concerning than the amount of power derived from information and its manipulation wielded by both private and governmental intelligence agencies is how much private tech companies know about the people who use their services. David Omand, the former director the United Kingdom’s information assurance and signals intelligence bureau, GCHG, told attendants at a lecture he gave in the UK that “The big revelation over the last couple of years has been not about government intelligence agencies, it’s been about the private sector. It is about the internet companies knowing more about me, you, everyone in the hall than any intelligence agency ever could or should know about us.” He also stated, “I think it’s a major threat to democracy and it’s uncontrollable.”
This data is used for everything from seemingly benign applications liked targeted advertisements to more nefarious activities like providing personal information to authoritarian governments and law enforcement agencies, sometimes for a fee.
The rate at which technological advances occur and society and culture become ever more digitized is most likely to increase at an even higher rate than ever imagined, and as society and culture evolve so will politics, warfare and espionage. The possibilities of these new technologies to influence elections, start and end wars, spread falsehoods and destroy revolutions are practically limitless, and it is glaringly clear that major world powers operating both in and outside of the sanctioned political order are becoming frighteningly adept at employing them.