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Why The U.S. Government's Fake 'Cuban Twitter' Service Failed

Apr 3 2014, 5:26pm CDT | by

It’s almost common these days for state-run parties to subvert grassroots movements. During the heyday of Anonymous, a hacktivist community born on 4chan and organized by hackers in chat rooms,...

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16 weeks ago

Why The U.S. Government's Fake 'Cuban Twitter' Service Failed

Apr 3 2014, 5:26pm CDT | by

It’s almost common these days for state-run parties to subvert grassroots movements. During the heyday of Anonymous, a hacktivist community born on 4chan and organized by hackers in chat rooms, federal authorities tried to usurp the collective with a honeypot-style movement called AntiSec. Not long after, AntiSec lost steam and fell apart.

A more fundamental failure hit ZunZuneo, a social-change project in Cuba that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) quietly created in 2009. The so-called “Cuban Twitter” shut down three years later when it failed to survive without state funding, and started getting blocked by the Cuban government.

The fake service allowed Cubans to send texts freely and anonymously to one another. USAID’s goal, according to the Associated Press, which cites government documents about the project, was to surreptitiously incite “smart mobs,” or spontaneous political rallies against Fidel Castro’s restrictive government.

U.S. officials have confirmed the government was behind the ZunZuneo project, calling it a discreet form of humanitarian aid and denying it was covert.

The aid agency’s Office of Transition Initiative division kickstarted the project after one of its sources obtained a database of half a million Cuban cell phone numbers. With the help of contractors the agency hid behind the guise of a hip, social-media service, then spammed those phone number with with texts bearing news snippets or satirical jokes. It relied on a complex network of spoof servers and front companies to disguise ZunZuneo’s origins in the United States.

This was secretive marketing for political purposes, an ill-fated attempt to copy the organic wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests that gathered momentum thanks to Twitter.

At first, it worked. ZunZuneo’s early users were people like Saimi Reyes Carmona, a Cuban journalism student quoted in the AP’s story, who could send free texts to thousands of followers under a nickname, free from the prying eyes of the Cuban government. Carmona recalled thinking at the time that ZunZuneo was “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” She was later stunned to learn about the service’s origins.

null  It amassed 40,000 users but had no clear explanation for how it was paying thousands of dollars in texting fees each month. Contractors reportedly sent internal memos suggesting the service should cut financial ties with USAID and continue promoting political change in Cuba — but the ideas weren’t sustainable. Even with tens of thousands of users, targeted advertising simply wouldn’t make enough money in a developing nation like Cuba. By June 2012, ZunZuneo was offline.

Given how pervasive mobile messaging apps can be, governments around the world have almost certainly flirted with ways they can co-opt them for snooping or marketing, or create their own as USAID did. But the most effective route may be to work, transparently, with popular services that already exist.

In India, political parties have used messaging giant WhatsApp to send text messages to hundreds of thousands of their constituents, with the goal of reaching young, tech-savvy voters. Rather than pilfering a database of phone numbers, they require party members to sign up to their WhatsApp group voluntarily.

It’s unclear if USAID has since tried repeating the fake, ZunZuneo project in some other part of the world.

“It depends on the results of this mission,” says J.J. Thomson, CEO of security consultancy Rook Security. “If the core objective was fulfilled then it is likely to be replicated.”

Considering the failure of ZunZuneo, the answer may well be “no.”

 
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7 weeks ago

RM47mil KWSG contributions still unclaimed

Jun 9 2014 7:54am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: About RM47 million of contributions in the Teachers Provident Fund (KWSG) still remain unclaimed, the Dewan Rakyat was t ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
9

7 weeks ago

Gold shop lost almost RM1mil

Jun 9 2014 3:50am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KANGAR: A gold shop owner lost almost RM1 million after after the safe on in his shop was broken into by robber ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
8

7 weeks ago

Motion to debate MAS losses in Dewan Rakyat rejected

Jun 9 2014 3:39am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: AN emergency motion to debate the losses incurred by Malaysia Airlines last year, amounting to RM1.2 billion was rejected by the Dewan Rakyat today ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
7

7 weeks ago

MH370 Tragedy: Hisham: RM27.6 mil spent on 1st phase of SAR

Jun 9 2014 2:11am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia spent some RM27.6 million in its first phase of the search operations for missing Malaysia Airline flight MH370, said Acting Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammudd ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
6

7 weeks ago

9.1m litres of diesel seized in a month

Jun 8 2014 1:11am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PUTRAJAYA: The Domestic Trade, Cooperatives, and Consumerism ministry has seized some 9.1 million litres of diesel and property worth RM58 million since mounting ‘Operasi Diesel Selatan’ in the southern states last ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
5

7 weeks ago

Girl, 9, awarded RM2.78m compensation for medical negligence

Jun 6 2014 4:56am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: A nine-year-old girl who suffered brain damage during her birth at a government hospital was awarded over RM2.78 million in compensat ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
4

7 weeks ago

Malaysia's total trade in April up 12pc

Jun 5 2014 11:52pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's total trade in April 2014 rose by 12 per cent from a year ago to RM123.86 billion due to growing trading activities, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
3

8 weeks ago

Works Ministry to spend RM20m for upgrading works at 50 accident black spots

Jun 4 2014 11:35pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

JOHOR BARU: The Works Ministry will implement upgrading works at 50 accident prone locations in the country that have been identified this year involving an allocation of RM20 millio ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
Update
2

8 weeks ago

Najib launches loan scheme for Ramadan traders

Jun 4 2014 10:24pm CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PUTRAJAYA: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak today launches RM45 million Ramadan ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 
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1

8 weeks ago

Residents bring up objection against Kidex to Suhakam

Jun 4 2014 4:49am CDT | Source: Business Times Malaysia

PETALING JAYA: A group of 20 Petaling Jaya residents held a meeting with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) over their objection against the proposed RM2.2 billion Kinrara Damansara Skyway (K ...
Source: Business Times Malaysia   Full article at: Business Times Malaysia
 

 

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