A shadowy unit of the British intelligence agency GCHQ tried to influence online activists during the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests and the 2011 democratic uprisings largely known as the Arab Spring, as new evidence gathered from documents leaked by Edward Snowden shows.
The GCHQ’s special unit, known as the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group or JTRIG, was first revealed in 2014, when leaked top secret documents showed it tried to infiltrate and manipulate—using “dirty trick” tactics such as honeypots—online communities including those of Anonymous hacktivists, among others.
The group’s tactics against hacktivists have been previously reported, but its influence campaign in the Middle East has never been reported before. I was able to uncover it because I was myself targeted in the past, and was aware of a key detail, a URL shortening service, that was actually redacted in Snowden documents published in 2014.
A now-defunct free URL shortening service—lurl.me—was set up by GCHQ that enabled social media signals intelligence. Lurl.me was used on Twitter and other social media platforms for the dissemination of pro-revolution messages in the Middle East.
These messages were intended to attract people who were protesting against their government in order to manipulate them and collect intelligence that would help the agency further its aims around the world. The URL shortener made it easy to track them.